VALLEY’S HOTTEST TEAMS
By Steve Ruman
Area sports fans often refer to the high school football season as, “The fastest 10 weeks in sports.”
Howland coach Dom Menendez and Springfield coach Sean Guerriero will counter with the notion that the season isn’t a sprint, but rather a marathon.
“It’s a long season, you just have to take one game at a time and not dwell on the past and not look beyond the next opponent,” Menendez said.
Guerriero noted that staying focused on the task at hand is the key to any successful team, and added that players “can learn from the past, but must remain focused on the future.”
Fortunately for Menendez and Guerriero, the Tigers — both Howland and Springfield — heeded the advice of their coaches. As a result, both teams are racing to a strong finish to the regular season.
Following an 0-2 start, Howland has won an area-best seven straight. The Tigers (7-2) have all but clinched a berth in the Division III playoffs, and have won the All American Conference Red Tier championship with a perfect 4-0 league mark.
Springfield (7-2) started out its season 1-2. However, following back-to-back losses to McDonald and Cuyahoga Heights, the Tigers have won six straight. They have clinched a first-round home playoff game in Division V, and own at least a share of the Inter-Tri County League Red Tier title.
“We knew we had the potential and the ability to get better, we knew we could turn our season around after week two,” Menendez said. “We had to protect the football, and we had to learn how to handle momentum changes throughout the course of a game. That was our two biggest issues.
“We felt that if we could correct those issues, we would be okay moving forward.”
Howland has been more than just okay. The Tigers have registered four shutouts during their seven game winning streak, including last week’s 21-0 victory at Canfield. Offensively, they have averaged 35.1 points per game during the stretch.
“Offensively, everyone looks at our play makers, and for good reason. They have really stepped up,” Menendez said. “But we’ve really made some noise defensively. We’ve been strong and steady on both sides of the ball.”
Howland quarterback Samari Dean has been steady from the start. The junior has completed 40 of 65 passes for 737 yards, including eight touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception.
“Samari has provided the offense with a new dynamic, he has been extremely effective and the offense has clicked with him out there,” Menendez said. “He gets the ball into the hands of our play-makers. He makes things happen.”
Senior Victor Williams (29 receptions, 478 yards, 4 TD) has been Dean’s favorite target, while senior Tyriq Ellis (942 yards, 14 TD) has paced a strong running game.
“The fact that we have a number of guys who we can count on, and who are all capable of making big plays, that makes it tough on the opposition,” Menendez said. “Defensively, a lot of these same players are stepping up and doing the same thing, making the type of plays that can change the outcome of a game.”
A year ago, Howland strung together a four game winning streak during the middle part of the season to put itself in playoff contention. However, the Tigers lost their last two games of the season to finish 6-4 and a distant 15th place in Region 7.
Williams said the Tigers were determined not to allow history to repeat itself.
“It came down to we were tired of losing,” Williams said. “After getting beat by Green in week two this year, our coaches stayed positive. They told us that if we just cut out our mistakes and played to our potential we would turn things around.
“Really nothing has changed since we lost two games except our mindset and our ability to avoid mistakes.”
Though Howland has a league title and a playoff berth secured, looking ahead to Week 11 is not an option. Tonight, the Tigers travel to Mollenkopf Stadium to take on rival Warren G. Harding (8-1).
“This is like a playoff game for us, it’s like everything is on the line whenever we play Warren,” Williams said. “Right now all we want to do is finish the season with a 13-2 record.”
After reaching the playoffs in 2014, Springfield began its 2015 campaign on a high note, winning back-to-back games against Brookfield and McDonald. However, the Tigers lost six of their next eight games to finish 4-6.
The Tigers stumbled out of the gate this year, falling to McDonald and Cuyahoga Heights in weeks two and three. However, they have since won six straight, including wins over a trio of 6-3 opponents (Western Reserve, East Palestine). They also have handed South Range (8-1) its only loss of the year.
“Our kids felt like they missed some opportunities against McDonald and Cuyahoga Heights – two extremely solid programs,” Guerriero said. “Rather than get down on themselves, they were quite determined to turn things around. They never gave up on themselves.
“When we beat South Range, this group really gained confidence. They played with a bit of swagger. We stressed that we still had all of our league games and the playoffs to shoot for. We didn’t want them to experience a letdown, and to their credit they have remained focused.”
Springfield’s balanced offense has gained 1,570 yards on the ground and 904 through the air. Frank Centofanti (482 yards, 8 TD) and sophomore Luke Snyder (518 yards, 5 TD) lead the rushing attack while sophomore Brannon Brungard has thrown for 869 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“Our backfield has done a phenomenal job running the ball, and Brannon has been tremendous at running the offense,” Guerriero said. “Brannon is so fundamentally sound. He knows exactly what to do, and he never gets rattled.”
Joe Santangelo (85 tackles), Ethan Nexbeth (73 tackles, 5 fumble recoveries), Zack Stouffer (69 tackles) and Gabe Barnard (64 tackles) have led a transformed defense.
“We’ve been running a 40 defense for the past seven years or so, but we switched up to a 3-4, which better suits this group,” Guerriero said. “They adapted right away. This unit really attacks the ball, it’s been a total team effort.”
The first of Springfield’s six straight wins was a 28-26 victory over perennial ITCL power Western Reserve. Centofanti said he believes that game set the stage for the rest of the season.
“We faced a lot of adversity that night and in the past that was the type of game we might have lost,” Centofanti said. “Well, we found a way to win. We just refused to quit. Even though it was just one game, it was a big one and it seemed like that night we turned the corner as a program.”
Tonight, Springfield plays at United (2-7). Despite already securing a home playoff game, the Tigers will have plenty to play for – they can secure an outright league title with a win.
“We’re treating this week like the start of the playoffs,” Centofanti said. “Winning the (ITCL) title means the world to us, and besides that it is important to go into the playoffs with the right frame of mind. We’ve come too far to let up now.”
Howland has made 10 playoff appearances. Its last showing in 2012 was the end of a six-year run.
Springfield has made seven trips to the postseason.