By Doug Chapin
Justin Miller returned to the Niles High boys soccer lineup with a bang on Tuesday night, scoring a hat trick as the Red Dragons defeated Poland, 3-2, in a Division II sectional tournament first-round game.
Miller played in just the first two games of what turned out to be an injury-marred season for the Dragons (7-6-4), who now play at third-seeded Champion on Saturday in a sectional bracket final.
“This is only the second game in which we had everybody,” Niles coach Joshua MacMillan said. “Justin is one of the better strikers in the area and this is only the third game he’s played all year.
“Last time we played Champion we were missing both or our starting forwards [Miller and Andy Rogers] and it will be interesting with both of them playing. This is the first time all year we’ve scored three goals in a game.”
Poland (5-10-2) scored both its goals on penalty kicks converted by Dan Hunt. The Bulldogs tied Niles 1-1 early in the season and, just 12 days ago, beat the Dragons 2-1 at home.
“We just couldn’t get our offense going. It’s been a problem of ours all season and it certainly plagued us tonight,” Poland coach Brad Sackella said.
The Bulldogs endured a five-game losing streak during the season, but rebounded to win three of their last four.
“We switched some things around and actually had some momentum going,” Sackella said. “But we knew it would come down to our offense being able to put some goals in the net and we just weren’t able to do it tonight.”
Miller’s first goal came at the 35:03 mark of the first half when he put the ball just inside the far post from about 15 yards out on the left side.
The first Poland penalty kick came 59 seconds later when Hunt was fouled in a one-on-one situation about 5 yards inside the penalty area.
Miller broke the tie just 1:31 before halftime. He took a good pass from Keir MacMillan down the channel just outside the right goal post. Just before reaching the end line, he shot for the near post and the ball deflected off a Poland player into the net.
Miller tallied what turned out to be the deciding goal when the ball ended up at his feet about 15 yards in front of the net and he put it in the bottom left corner of the goal.
Niles keeper Noah Arvin made a great save on a free kick by Jack Watson, getting a hand on the ball and deflecting it off the post. But less than a minute later, at the 19:24 mark, Niles was called for a hand ball in the box and Hunt converted from the spot for the second time.
“The kids stayed focused on the game and didn’t worry about calls and anything else, they just worried about playing,” MacMillan said about the Dragons‘ reaction to the Poland penalty kicks.
During the regular season, the Red Dragons’ goal-scoring numbers — 13 goals for and 24 against — were somewhat misleading. In four losses to Howland and Canfield, the two Division I powers outscored Niles 15-0.
“We had a lot of experience, a lot of juniors and seniors, and we thought early on we could do something this year,” MacMillan said. “Of our six losses, four are to Howland and Canfield. Plus we lost to Hubbard on a quick toe poke goal with 1:11 left, and we lost to Poland but we were down five starters.”
With ties during the regular season against the tournament’s top-seeded (Salem) and third-seeded (Champion) teams, the Red Dragons are hopeful of extending their season into late October.