When Niles McKinley High School’s football team beat Girard, 34-13, to open the season, the doubters dismissed it.
Down year for the Indians, they said. Wait until the Red Dragons play Poland.
When Niles outlasted Liberty, 12-6, in Week 2, the doubters pointed to the ugliness of the game between the Red Dragons and Leopards, who were coming off an 0-10 season.
Liberty, they said, has gone 1-19 the last two years and hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. Wait until Niles plays Poland.
When Niles dominated Salem, 41-23, on the road in Week 3, the doubters conceded that the Red Dragons looked good, but reminded everyone the Quakers were winless. Wait until Niles plays Poland.
The Red Dragons did just that last Friday and left proved they’re not a mirage. Niles (4-0) took a 13-0 lead and never trailed. The 33-28 final score was a bit misleading, because the Red Dragons had second-half leads of 26-7 and 33-14 before the Bulldogs made it respectable.
“It was a monumental win,” first-year Niles coach Brian Shaner told The Vindicator’s John Bassetti.
That was hardly hyperbole. Poland leads the series, 19-4. The Red Dragons gave the Bulldogs a game a year ago, falling 10-7, but this has historically been a bad matchup for Niles.
Something has changed. And this time, it might be a change that is here to stay for a while.
The doubters will say they’ve found fool’s gold in Niles before. The Red Dragons started each of the last three seasons 3-1, but finished 5-5 in 2011, 3-7 in 2010 and 4-6 in 2009. In 2008, they were 2-2 after four weeks but never won again and finished 2-8.
Again, Niles pushed Poland a year ago. And the Red Dragons did upset Canfield, 29-28, last season. But that road win over the Cardinals was their only victory in the last month of a season that fizzled again after another solid start.
But a Niles insider told me Friday night Shaner — who took the job after coaching at East — has changed the attitude and culture within the Red Dragons program.
If the first four weeks are an indication, the players have bought into Shaner’s philosophy of running the no-huddle offense to keep opposing defenses guessing and as disorganized as possible.
The Red Dragons’ Stefan Yuhas threw three touchdown passes and ran for two scores against Poland in one of the most impressive all-around performances by a quarterback in the area in the first month of the season. Yuhas operates behind a veteran offensive line.
Shaner also likes his defense to play fast. Niles’ defenders fly to the ball and try to bring as much pressure as possible to the opposing quarterback.
The formula has worked. The doubters — and I was among them — didn’t really see this coming, at least not this soon. Niles had to prove something before we could expect the Red Dragons to win a big All-American Conference, American Division road game.
Now that they’ve done it, are we satisfied?
We ought to be. But Shaner and the Red Dragons probably aren’t satisfied. They want to finish this season as well as they’ve started it.