By Pete Mollica
CANTON — If ever there were a prime example of mistakes turning a football game completely around, you’d have to look no farther than Friday night’s Division II Region 5 semifinal contest between Howland and Ashland here at Canton Central Catholic High Stadium.
The Tigers (10-2) dominated the Arrows for more than three quarters and held a 14-0 lead, but then three consecutive mistakes in the final 10 minutes of the contest enabled Ashland to rally for a 19-14 win and advance to the regional finals next Friday against Mentor Lake Catholic.
“Turnovers will kill you every time,” said a disappointed Howland head coach Dick Angle. “We totally outplayed them for three quarters and then three critical mistakes and the game is over.”
Howland built a 14-0 lead with its dominate running game and did it without its top running back Mike Mangiarelli, who was injured with just over six minutes left in the first quarter and never saw action the rest of the night.
But freshman Deveon Smith and junior fullback Brandon Neilan stepped up and did and outstanding job combining for 238 yards of the Tigers 254 rushing yards and both touchdowns.
But then came the final quarter and it all started with a botched punt attempt.
Howland punter Chris McClearn couldn’t handle a low snap from center and ended up falling on the ball back at his own 49 yard line. Five plays later on the arm of quarterback Marcus Fuller, the Arrows got on the board when Fuller hit Matt Smith with an 11-yard scoring toss.
The Tigers then tried again, but this time Smith broke off tackle for a good gain but as he came down lost the football and Mike Bixler recovered at the Howland 41. This time the Arrows took eight plays with Fuller connecting with Marquise Jones for an 11 yard TD pass.
The Tigers got a big break when Greg Gallaway missed the point after touchdown and Howland still held a 14-13 advantage.
Taking over at midfield following an onside kick attempt that failed with 4:06 left on the clock, the Tigers needed just a couple of first downs to sew up the victory. They got the first one on a Neilan rush to the Arrows’ 39 yard line, but on the next play Neilan was hit hard at the line and fumbled, this time Mike Maneese recovered at the 40 with two minutes remaining.
Fuller connected on a big third down play with Jones that covered 39 yards and then had another 32-yard toss to Chris Thomas that put the ball on the three. Fuller carried over on the next play to give Ashland its first lead of the game with 44 seconds remaining.
Howland’s last ditch attempt ended in their fourth turnover as quarterback Matt Preston was intercepted by Smith in the final seconds.
“To play as well as we did for three quarters and then give it away with turnovers is disappointing, but nobody is more disappointed than that group of kids in there,” added Angle.
“Give Ashland credit, they never gave up and they took advantage of every mistake we made tonight,” he said.
Ashland head coach Scott Valentine, who’s Arrows have come from behind in each of its two playoff wins this year, had high praise for the Tigers.
“That’s an awfully good football team and we were fortunate to get the turnovers and then take advantage of them tonight,” he said. “They beat us up pretty good for three quarters, but our kids never quit just like they’ve been doing all season long.
The Arrows (11-1) passed the football 34 times with Fuller hitting 20 of them for 209 yards and two touchdowns, but the Tigers sacked him six times. Howland on the other hand ran the football 53 times and passed only twice the entire game.