By Steve Ruman
The dawning of the new millennium signaled a new beginning for Howland football.
Prior to 2000, the Tigers owned just one playoff appearance. However, beginning in 2001, they made nine postseason trips in a 12-year span. A six-year streak was snapped in 2013, and the Tigers have since struggled to regain their form.
Last year, Howland went 6-4. However, three of those losses were by a single touchdown.
With seven starters returning on offense and nine on defense, the Tigers appear ready to make their mark in the All American Conference and in Division III Region 7.
The bulk of Howland’s experience on offense revolves around the skill positions. Senior running back Tyriq Ellis has already rushed for 25 touchdowns, including 16 last year when he ran for 1,259 yards on 215 carries.
Senior Victor Williams is looking to earn his fourth varsity letter. The versatile Williams played quarterback and running back as a sophomore. As a junior, Williams ran for 234 yards and pulled in a team-high 26 passes for 409 yards.
Senior Jake Lester (58-for-109, 975 yards) returns under center.
“We have two very explosive players who have the experience, and in Jake we have a solid kid who manages the game very well,” Howland coach Dom Menendez said. “It’s all going to come down to what we can do up front.”
Senior Ryan Jones along with juniors Noah Bell and Jack Lambert will anchor the offensive line.
Howland pitched two shutouts in 2015 while limiting three other opponents to a pair of touchdowns. The Tigers gave up an average of 18.5 points per game, and with nine starters returning on defense, that number could go down.
The Howland defense will be anchored by a pair seniors who led the team in tackles last fall. Stephen Baugh (57 tackles, four sacks) and Williams (51 tackles, nine sacks) are part of an experienced corp of linebackers.
Junior Brandon Matlock will provide veteran leadership on the line, while senior Shawn Carr will lead the defensive backfield unit.
“The old adage says that you have to take care of the football, play good defense and have a solid special teams,” Menendez said. “We really challenge ourselves to always have solid special teams play.”
Junior Jon Elliot handled the punting duties as a sophomore, averaging 30 yards per boot. The Tigers will turn to sophomore Luke Brancaccio to handle the kicking duties while the wealth of skilled players should provide a strong return game.
In terms of numbers, there is both bad and good news with the Tigers.
The bad news is that the roster includes just 43 players. That’s significantly down from recent years.
The good news is that nearly half of the roster (19) is made up of seniors — many of whom have already earned their stripes at the varsity level.
“We’ll take quality over quantity,” Menendez said. “Our kids have worked hard and they are finding out what it takes to be successful. Our senior class is made up of quality kids who are willing to take ownership of this program.”
Howland was close to cracking its playoff drought in each of the past two years. In 2014, the Tigers finished 7-3 and ninth in their region. Last year, they were 6-2 and in the playoff hunt until losing back-to-back home games to Canfield and Warren Harding.
Depth is a concern for Menendez. However, if the Tigers can stay healthy, they should be in serious contention for a league title and a playoff berth in late October.
“Our schedule is brutal, but we want to challenge ourselves. We’re anxious to see how we stack up,” Menendez said. “But an injury or two can be the difference between 7-3 and 3-7, so we have to stay healthy.”