Missing a playoff berth by .0624 of a point in 2012 will make a team skeptical as it approaches the final week of the regular season in position to qualify in 2013.
So, even after his Struthers Wildcats laced Niles, 49-19, Friday night, coach Curt Kuntz talks about their last regular-season opponent cautiously.
“We’ll get back to work on Monday in preparation for Howland, so that’s where our focus is,” Kuntz said. “We’ve got to take care of Week 10 and figure it out from there. Not having been in the playoffs for 15 years or so and having one [Howland] that’s been in [the playoffs] for the last 10 years or so, we’re not even saying the playoff word right now. We’re just worrying about getting better the next five days of practice and give our best shot against Howland.”
Luke Witkowski’s big runs and first downs on five of Struthers’ first six offensive plays set the tempo for the blowout win among All-American Conference, American Division teams.
Witkowski, a junior who came to this country from Poland at age 6, turned up the heat early against Niles (4-5, 1-4) with runs up the middle.
Although he didn’t score, Witkowski set up Jay King’s 2-yard run that put the Wildcats (7-2, 2-2) ahead, 7-0. After Niles tied the game at 7, a 20-yard run by Witkowski and Nick Pollifrone’s back-to-back runs of 25 and 5 yards — the touchdown run — and Anthony Milone’s second of seven PATs enabled Struthers to go ahead for good, 14-7.
Senior Brandon Kish’s kickoffs were a key factor in the first half, when Marcus Donnadio and Austin Yemma alertly recovered the ball for Struthers. One kickoff was of the pooch variety, while another was squibbed. Both were designed to keep the ball out of the hands of Niles return men Marcus Hill and Chris Parry.
“We weren’t going to give any extra touches to them because they get so many of them,” Kuntz said. “So, the plan was to kick it short and then cover and make them fair-catch it. When they did make a play on it, we had a chance to get it.”
Pressure on Niles quarterback Kyle Paden via blitz and coverage by Struthers defensive backs made life difficult for the Red Dragons.
“When our safeties have confidence, they can play with anybody,” Kuntz said of Donnadio, a senior, and junior Anthony Farkas. “We didn’t want to give them the same look two plays in a row,” Kuntz said of mixing up the defensive schemes, with the help of cornerbacks Frankie Serrano and Dalton Moore.
Serrano had an interception and 20-yard return for a touchdown late in the game, while Donnadio also had an interception in the early second quarter.
Pollifrone barreled in for a head-on hit of Paden during Niles’ first series to let the Red Dragons know they were in for a bruising battle.
“He’s the most special kid I’ve coached in 17 years,” Kuntz said of Pollifrone. “He’ll play anywhere. He just wants to win and do what’s best for the team,” the coach said of the 4.0 student.
In eight of its nine games, Struthers has hung its hat on the offensive line of Dan Dudley, Mike and Dan Pape, Carmen Sinkovich, Donald Clyde and Cameron Suchora.
Niles coach Brian Shaner had no answer for the flubbed first-half kickoff returns.
“Maybe a brain freeze on our part not to fair-catch the ball and take it where it was kicked,” Shaner said. “It’s something that is coached, but, again, they caught us off-guard, so hats-off to Struthers, they’re going to the playoffs for a reason.”
He didn’t give any excuses for being out-played.
“They ran a great scheme on defense that kind of got us out of what we like to do. They’re a physical football team and I wish them well in the playoffs.”
Pollifrone also scored on an 18-yard run and Temeko Holness caught an 8-yard TD pass from Gary Muntean.
Muntean also hit Yemma for a 4-yard TD catch and Michael Sullivan crashed in from 4 yards out.
Marcus Hill caught TD passes from Paden from 45 and 32 yards away and Chris Parry also scored on a 13-yard toss from Paden.