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Beautiful game boost?

Little eyes peering over the metal railing. They see so much, curious about their surroundings.

This day, those youthful stares are meant for those older boys on the grassy, sometimes field-turf, pitch. Soccer balls bounce off their feet and heads — maintaining control and dribbling forward.

This sport is referred to worldwide as the beautiful game.

The success the Howland and South Range high school boys soccer programs had this season could make the Mahoning Valley a more attractive home to the world’s sport.

Howland boys soccer team lost 1-0 in Sunday’s Division II state championship game to Tipp City Tippecanoe. It was the Tigers’ first trip to state, and it was the first time an area team was close to securing a state title in this sport since Cardinal Mooney won in 2002.

South Range, which has made three state final fours since 2014, made the D-III title game in 2015 before losing, 9-0, to Cincinnati Summit Country Day.

This year, the Raiders made it to the Division III state semifinal round where they lost to Bluffton, 2-1, in the second overtime period.

“We hope the younger kids coming out to the games are looking up to these kids and realize it is possible,” Howland coach Brian Stiles said. “If they work hard and train right, it is possible to reach the highest level of soccer.”

Howland finished the season No. 9 in Division II, according to the Ohio Scholastic Soccer Coaches Association state poll. South Range was No. 3 in Division III.

Teenagers exited two yellow school buses prior to South Range’s state semifinal match last week at Doylestown Chippewa High School. The mass of white-clad young people rushed toward the entrance with tickets in hand. The bus trip and tickets were paid for, so the Bluffton fans coming from northwest Ohio — taking up most of the home side during the Final Four game — could enjoy their team.

The Pirates and Raiders fans were there to see two of the most talented teams in D-III this season. One of those teams happened to be from the Mahoning Valley. It’s something this area hasn’t been able to boast in years past.

Anywhere from 15 to 20 years ago, most area soccer coaches had little knowledge of the game. Some were teachers assigned to the sport.

Now, you have coaches like South Range coach Mike Bailey, who grew up playing the sport.

“The big difference you’re seeing now is people who played the game, and a lot of guys who played at the college level, are becoming coaches,” he said. “That’s reflecting in the overall play in the area.”

Howland junior goalkeeper Lucas Brill, who had an outstanding season for the Tigers, knew what it meant to see South Range make the state final four.

Two teams from the Mahoning Valley? That’s something special.

“It helps a lot, definitely for the area, it’s great,” he said. “I have a lot of buddies on the South Range team. It was great to see them make such a long run along our side.”

Teams like South Range and Howland are the standards in this area that other teams are following, playing competition that gets them ready for the postseason.

South Range had one of its few losses this season at state-ranked and former D-II state champion Richfield Revere, 1-0. South Range lost a 2-1 decision against Howland in the regular season. It’s been a one-goal contest for these teams the past couple of meetings, with the Tigers coming out on top.

“We’re not afraid to go play those other teams,” Bailey said. “We know that our boys are able to stack up against those high-quality teams out of the Akron, Cleveland and Canton areas.

“I always pride ourselves to go out and try to play the best that we can.”

Those little eyes are always watching, sometimes participating in youth and travel leagues. Sometimes they patiently wait with a soccer ball in their hands, waiting for that moment an official or varsity player comes from the pitch, needing another ball in play.

This year, South Range and Howland gave the area youth something to strive for and to maintain for years to come.

“To give the kids and show them the kind of experiences they can get through our sport right now, is hopefully a good selling point for the future,” Stiles said.