By TIM CLEVELAND
While it wasn’t pretty and might not have been the way Struthers would have wanted to win, the Wildcats earned a 31-20 victory Friday night against Howland to clinch a playoff berth, as they entered Week 10 third in Division IV, Region 11’s computer rankings.
“Howland’s a great program, not just a team,” Struthers coach Curt Kuntz said. “Everybody else thought we might roll them over, but our kids knew they were going to be ready for four quarters of physical football. We were able to figure it out, make some adjustments, and end up with the W.”
It is Struthers’ first postseason appearance since 1999.
Kuntz said the turnaround he’s helped engineer in his two seasons as coach is due to the talent he has at his disposal.
“We’ve got great kids,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of Division I talent. We don’t get a lot of players’ names in the newspaper, but this is the funnest group of kids to come and work with every day.”
The teams combined for 25 penalties for 191 yards (including seven personal fouls), plus five turnovers.
Howland (4-6, 0-5 All-American Conference, American Division) erased a 10-point deficit to take a 14-10 halftime lead. With 9:02 left in the third quarter, Howland’s Jaquore Marrs fumble, which was recovered by Shemer Gilmore on the Howland 31.
Howland coach Dominic Menendez said his team’s mistakes proved to be the difference.
“Turnovers killed us,” he said. “Our kids played extremely hard. Unfortunately, we came up on the short end of the stick. We had the opportunity to win the game.”
Struthers (8-2, 3-2) marched down to the 5, where it appeared quarterback Gary Muntean was stopped at the 1 on fourth and goal. Howland was called for holding in the end zone, which gave the Wildcats another chance on fourth down at the 1.
Nick Pollifrone appeared to be stopped, but after a lengthy discussion, the officials ruled he was in, giving Struthers a 17-14 lead. Howland’s bench was called for a personal foul for arguing the play, plus Struthers was hit with one as well on the extra point.
Early in the fourth quarter, Marrs put the ball on the turf again, which Gilmore again came up with on the Tigers’ 41. Two plays later, Muntean connected with Cameron Suchora on a 46-yard score for a 24-14 lead with 7:54 to play.
Marrs led Howland with 82 yards on 19 carries.
Struthers held Howland to 237 total yards and forced four turnovers, plus stopped Marrs on a fourth-and-1 on the Wildcats’ 8 late in the second quarter when it appeared the Tigers would extend a 14-10 lead.
“As long as I’m here, we’re going to be a defensive team first,” Kuntz said. “Our kids play hard and run to the ball. We try to make our name with our defense and on offense, take advantage of what they’re given.”
After Howland scored to pull within four with 7:40 left, Dalton Moore returned the kickoff 44 yards to the Howland 26. Three plays later, Luke Witkowski rushed 14 yards for the clinching touchdown.
Witkowski led all players with 159 yards on 22 carries.
Having completed his first season as coach after replacing Dick Angle, who coached the Tigers for 15 seasons and made the playoffs in his final six, Menendez said he and his staff learned a lot in their initial campaign.
“It’s everything I expected,” he said.