Niles made the postseason for the first time since 2000 and shares the conference title.
By DOUG CHAPIN
HOWLAND -- While talking with the media following Niles McKinley High's 28-0 victory Friday night over Howland, coach Phil Annarella was informed Canfield had defeated Poland, resulting in a three-way tie for the Metro Athletic Conference championship.
"Canfield won! Yeah!," Annarella exclaimed. "Getting into the playoffs and as MAC co-champions, it doesn't get a whole lot better. We just have to regroup and refocus and get ready to play the second season."
It was indeed a productive night for the Red Dragons (9-1, 6-1 MAC) who made the postseason for the first time since back-to-back playoff appearances in 1999 and 2000.
Niles capitalized on Howland (5-5, 4-3) turnovers for three first-half touchdowns, then took the second half kickoff and drove 45 yards in 11 plays, helped by two Tiger penalties, to put the game away.
"We've done that all year, capitalizing on turnovers," Annarella said.
"We're real proud of the kids, we came in here looking for that sort of thing and that's what happened."
Howland fumbled the opening kickoff and Niles recovered at the Tigers' 30.
Eight plays later, Nate Ganyard scored from seven yards out. He finished with 86 tough yards on 26 carries.
The Red Dragons ran 50 plays on the night -- all runs -- and gained just 136 yards on a rain-soaked field but made the most of their field position.
Another Howland special teams fumble, this time on a punt, set up the Dragons again at the Tiger 30. Again it took eight plays and again Ganyard scored, this time from one yard out with 3:36 showing on the second-quarter clock.
Howland punted, then forced Niles into a punting situation in the final seconds of the first half. The Tigers got the punt block they were looking for and took over at the Niles 36 with time for just one desperation pass play.
Red Dragon safety Anthony Mullen thwarted the Tigers' effort, picking off a pass down the middle at the 15 and returning it 85 yards for a touchdown.
The Tigers changed uniforms at half-time and came out in their all-black attire but it didn't change the way things were going.
Jeff Cayavec alertly recovered Howland's onside kick to start the second half and the Dragons were in business at the 45 of Howland.
Ganyard carried on nine of the 11 Niles plays on the Dragons' final scoring drive, getting his third touchdown from three yards out.
The Niles offensive line was outstanding, especially on the three scoring drives. Among those opening the holes for Ganyard were seniors Joe Mechling and Aaron Strock; juniors John Swisher, Jeff Petrilli, Anthony Roberts, Zack Showalter and Cayavec; and sophomore Max Plevyak.
Also deserving credit are fullbacks Jon Hites and Les Tabor.
Since a Week 5 loss to Poland, the Red Dragons, who have beaten Howland 10 of the last 11 meetings, have reeled off five straight wins by a combined score of 156-6.
"Since that loss to Poland we've been able to keep our focus all season. A lot of credit has to go to the assistant coaches for keeping the kids focused," Annarella said. Getting into the playoffs is, number one, great for the kids and program and, number two, great for the community."
Qualifying for the postseason while sharing the MAC championship makes it all the better.