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Niles tops Howland, 21-7

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Niles tailback Antuan Gardner braces for contact as Howland’s Sam Vacha goes to make a tackle. The Red Dragons defeated the host Tigers, 21-7.

HOWLAND — With the 2022 campaign officially underway, the Niles Red Dragons started the season with a 21-7 win over its longtime rival, the Howland Tigers.

Both teams started the game going three-and-out on offense, but Niles found the endzone first and would ultimately score once more in the first half to head into intermission ahead 14-0.

“It felt like we made a lot of mistakes and left some points out there,” head coach Jim Parry said. “We knew Howland was going to keep going all night because they’re a proud program, coach (Steve) Boyle does a great job. We knew we were in for a dog fight.”

Niles scored first on a 1-yard rush by Antuan Gardner with 1:22 left to play in the first quarter. Gardner’s number was called 24 times and he fought for 95 yards and the touchdown as Niles’ leading rusher. Parry said using Gardner was by design.

“(When) you’ve got a kid like that, you want to get him the ball as much as you can. I think we showed we have some other weapons and I think Anthony (Budak) spread the ball pretty well,” he said.

With 7:43 left in the first half, Budak found the endzone on the ground, scampering across the goal line for a 6-yard touchdown run. Budak finished the game with five rushing attempts for 16 yards, but showed prowess when he took to the air. He completed 19 passes on 26 attempts for 202 yards and one touchdown.

Heading into the half down by 14, Boyle told his team they needed to win the second half.

“Obviously we came up a bit short of that ultimatum,” he said. “I’m very proud with the way the kids competed and they fought all the way to the end.”

Things started out in Howland’s favor when play resumed, however. On his first drive of the second half, Howland quarterback John Perry connected with receiver Nick Leasure for an 80-yard touchdown completion which started to swing momentum in the Tigers’ favor.

Shortly after the touchdown, Niles was knocking on the door with a first-and-goal situation. The Howland defense stood tall and held the Niles offense scoreless on the drive.

“My hat goes off to the defense. The black shirts did a great job for us and we just need to continue to try to eliminate the big plays,” Boyle said.

With less than a minute left in the third quarter, Budak found Kristopher Hrosar for an 11-yard touchdown pass to put the proverbial nail in the coffin.

When it comes to the defensive side, Parry said limiting the run game was a big factor. The Red Dragons held Howland to only 29 yards on the ground.

“We gave up some big plays, but I think we stopped the run effectively, that was key. That’s what we came in here wanting to do, especially knowing what Howland likes to do,” he said. “If we can continue to get better and not give up those big plays, I think we can be pretty good on defense.”

Those “big plays” came by way of passes from Perry to Leasure. The junior signal-caller threw for 177 yards and a touchdown on seven completions and 21 attempts. Leasure, however, was a target for almost half of Perry’s completions. In total, Leasure pulled in three receptions for 155 yards plus the touchdown.

Looking to next week, Boyle said he is going to emphasize eliminating certain mistakes.

“We’ve got to fix the mistakes we made. The big thing is to make sure we make those corrections and move forward. Our eyes are in the front of our head for a reason,” he said.

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