|9/2||Div. III||All-American Conference White Tier|
By Steve Ruman
Seven weeks ago, the Poland High football team was searching for answers.
The Bulldogs were 2-2. They had just surrendered 33 points in a loss to Niles, a team which in years past they had dominated.
It appeared as though a five-year playoff run was in jeopardy.
While many Poland fans view the moment as a low-water mark of the 2012 season, Bulldogs coach Mark Brungard has a different take on the matter.
“To me, the Niles game was a turning point,” Brungard said. “We came off the field that night, and we immediately became a different team. Until then, our focus wasn’t where it should have been. From that point on, it’’s been total commitment.
“That night, it could have been easy for some guys to throw in the towel. Instead, everyone dug deep down and went in the complete opposite direction.”
In fact, Poland won five of its next six games. In doing so, it finished 7-3, and qualified for the playoffs for the 12th time in program history.
Last week, the Bulldogs continued their season with a dominating post-season performance. The Dogs defeated Marlington, 38-0, in a Division III, Region 11 first-round game. They now move on to play Dover (9-2) in the regional semifinals.
The victory avenged a 10-3 loss to the Dukes in the season opener. It also helped ease the pain of Poland’s previous two playoff losses – which were by a combined three points.
“We had a pretty bad taste in our mouth because of the way the season ended the last two years, and because Marlington beat us three straight years,” said linebacker Mike Turnbull. “Plus, we have been playing with a chip on our shoulder ever since the Niles game.
“Getting to the playoffs wasn’t enough for us this year. We felt like we had something to prove. We came out on fire. We had a ton of intensity.”
The Bulldogs’ defense came up huge in handing Marlington its first shutout since September of 2006. The Dukes’ potent rushing offense was held to just 98 yards, including a season-low 79 yards by Michigan recruit Dymonte Thomas. The impressive showing was just the latest in a string of strong performances by the Dogs’ defense.
A week after the loss to Niles, Poland pitched a shutout against Canfield. It kept Struthers scoreless in the second half of a 28-14 win, and limited a dangerous Hubbard offense to just 179 total yards. It ended the regular season by holding Beaver Local to just 176 yards.
“In high school football, it all starts with stopping the run. Our front seven has done a tremendous job of doing just that all year long,” Brungard said. “We’ve been very blessed in that we’ve stayed healthy throughout the season. Our guys are very durable. They’re rugged, and they never slow down.”
Turnbull leads the team with 78 tackles. The senior also has two sacks, and has recorded a pair of forced fumbles.
Senior linebacker Anthony Kosec has 70 tackles and three sacks to his credit. Senior defensive end Alex Hubbell (52 tackles, 4 sacks, 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage) and defensive tackle Shane Evan (57 tackles, nine for loss, 5.5 sacks) also contribute to a deep and talented unit.
“At the beginning of the year, there was a lot of talk about our offense. The defense wasn’t getting recognized,” Evan said. “I think as a group, we felt like we had something to prove.”
Like his coach, Evan believes the defense “has played with a different mindset” since the midway point of the season.
“We knew we were better than that. But we also knew that it was up to us to prove it,” Evan said. “The talent was always there. So was the drive. We always worked hard in the weight room and in practice. But I think after the Niles game we came together as one unit. That made a difference.”
With a shutout against the run-oriented Dukes under its belt, the Bulldogs’ defense will now be tested against a pass-happy Dover squad. Tornadoes quarterback Mason Mamarella has completed 197 of 323 passes for 2,745 yards. He has thrown 28 touchdown passes. The Tornadoes’ running game has accumulated another 1,979 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Overall, Dover is averaging nearly 38 points per game.Despite the lofty numbers, Hubbell is looking forward to the challenge.
“They go five wide and really spread out the field. It will be our biggest challenge yet,” Hubbell said. “But that’s what you expect when you get to this point. We enjoy the pressure. We seem to play better in that situation.
“We’ve gotten better each week since the middle of the season. We’ll just have to take it up one more notch this weekend.”
Saturday’s game will be played at Green High School. The winner will face either Steubenville or Millersburg West Holmes next week for the region 11 championship.