By Steve Ruman
The Howland Tigers in 2016 began their season with back-to-back losses, including the regular season finale to backyard rival Warren G. Harding. But in between those setbacks it was all good. The Tigers strung together seven consecutive wins, which earned them an All-American Conference Red Tier title and a trip to the playoffs.
If the Tigers are going to make a run at a league title and playoff appearance this fall, they will have to grow up in a hurry. The Tigers lost 20 seniors to graduation, and with a roster of just 45, there is little room for error.
Fifth-year coach Dominic Menendez said that despite a new cast of characters, the Tigers will stick with what they know best.
“Defensively, we’ll stay the same, we’re going to stay aggressive,” Menendez said. “On offense, we’re going to try to fit to our personnel as best we can and get the ball into the hands of our play makers as much as possible.”
For the past three years, the Howland offense revolved largely around running back Tyriq Ellis (1,066 yards, 14 TDs). However, with the AAC Player of the Year lost to graduation, the Tigers will now turn to senior quarterback Samari Dean to provide leadership and experience.
As a junior, Dean completed 61 of 101 passes for 910 yards and nine touchdowns. He also rushed for 342 yards.
“Samari is a great competitor, it’s probably his greatest attribute,” Menendez said. “He played 10 games for us last year, and got us on a great roll so we’ll look for big things from him.
“Samari is very capable of leading the offense in a number of ways.”
The offensive line will be anchored by a pair of senior lettermen — Noah Bell (6-foot-3, 265) and Brandon Matlock (6-foot-1, 230).
“With a young backfield, we’ll look for our guys up front to provide some strength. They will need to carry the load,” Menendez said.
The Tigers will have to rebuild after losing the likes of Victor Williams (AAC Defensive Player of the Year) and Stephen Baugh (131 tackles, 11 sacks). In all, nine starters will have to be replaced for a defense which ranked among the best in the AAC.
With such a young nucleus, Howland will rely heavily on senior linebacker Chris Julian. As a junior, Julian (6-foot-2, 220) recorded 90 tackles and eight sacks.
“He’s a really good-looking player — he has a nose for the ball,” Menendez said. “He’s always in the thick of the action, and we’ll really need him to step up and make some big plays.”
Much like the offensive line, Menendez says the defensive front will have to carry the load for an otherwise inexperienced group.
“We’re very young in the defensive backfield, so the guys up front will have to carry the weight while we mature as a group,” he said.
The Tigers will have a strong and experienced kicking game, as they return both their starting punter (senior Jonny Elliot) and kicker (junior Luke Brancaccio).
However, the core of skilled players that made the Tigers an explosive return team are gone, so they will have some holes to fill.
With just four starters returning on offense, and two on defense, Howland is expected to have its share of growing pains. The Tigers will have to grow up fast, as they open the season against backyard rival Lakeview, then travel to Boardman and Parma Padua Franciscan before beginning league play.
Menendez hopes to build around Dean on offense and Julian on defense, along with his other returning lettermen.
“We have to have a great mental attitude, and certainly with our numbers we have to stay healthy in order to compete against our schedule,” Menendez said. “Expectations are always high in Howland, and this year is no exception.”