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’Dogs turned it around

As far as Poland senior Antonio Gay is concerned, the turning point of the 2019 season occurred on a bus ride home from Howland back on Sept.13.

The Bulldogs were returning home following a heartbreaking 14-13 loss to the Tigers, which dropped their record to 1-2.

“We were devastated,” said Gay, a wide receiver and defensive back “We had a chance to pull out the win and we didn’t. We were fighting injuries. It was a rough couple of weeks.

“We had to decide right then and there how we were going to respond. On our way back home, and once we got back and into the locker room, the seniors collectively vowed that this wasn’t how we were going to go down. We knew all about the strong Poland football history and we didn’t want to be that team that fell apart and didn’t live up to the tradition.”

Instead, this year’s Bulldogs became the team that won a regional title for just the third time in school history. Since that loss to Howland, Poland has won 10 straight games — the program’s longest single-season winning streak since the 1999 team went 15-0 en route to a state title.

“It would have been easy to start pointing fingers and all that, but that’s not who we are,” Gay said. “That second loss brought us closer together.”

On Saturday, Poland (11-2) will play Licking Valley (13-0) in a Division IV state semifinal game at Paul Brown Stadium in Massillon. The winner will play either Clyde or Cincinnati Wyoming to decide the state championship.

“We’re going to be challenged in a huge way,” said Poland coach Ryan Williams. “In terms of how Licking Valley is coached, we’ll be going up against one of the best coaches we’ve ever faced. We know this team will be as well-prepared as any team we have ever faced.”

Licking Valley is guided by Randy Baughman, who has served as either an assistant or head coach at his alma mater for 44 years. As a head coach, Baughman has guided the Panthers to over 300 wins. His teams have made 18 playoff appearances and eight state semifinal appearances.

“You watch this team on film, and it’s clear right away that they are so educated in the game of football” Williams said. “Their attention to detail is off the charts. They are very physical, very sound and they do all the little things right. You can’t make any mistakes against them because they will capitalize and they won’t hurt themselves.”

Licking Valley is averaging just over 40 points a game, while giving up 10 per game.

Senior tailback Mitchell Ford (6-foot-2) leads the Panthers’ running game with 1,456 yards and 20 touchdowns in 211 carries. Senior quarterback Logan Bragg (6-foot-1) has completed 103 of 170 pass attempts for 1,364 yards. He has thrown for 20 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

“(Ford) runs really hard, he is very powerful and physical,” Williams said. “(Bragg) is really steady. He doesn’t make mistakes, he seems to make all the right decisions.”

Senior Hayden Hile leads the Panthers’ defense with seven interceptions. Linebackers Noah Hopkins and Connor Buxton have combined to record 223 tackles.

“Those linebackers are very run conscience, they defend the run really well, and of course we love to run the ball,” Williams said.

Licking Valley finished atop the D-IV, region 15 rankings. After coasting through the regular season, the Panthers have played in a trio of relatively competitive playoff games.

Poland outscored its first two playoff opponents by a combined score of 66-0. Last week it had to rally for a 17-13 victory over top-ranked Perry.

“Our kids never panicked when Perry went ahead early,” Williams said. “We knew their offense had a ton of firepower. Our guys on defense are very intelligent. It was a matter of our guys seeing what Perry was doing offensively and making adjustments. There was never any panic.”

“Offensively, we just stuck to what we do best. We never felt like we had to get away from our game. We kept plugging away and eventually it paid off.”

Just over 10 weeks ago, Poland’s season was hanging in the balance. Now, the Bulldogs will be hanging at the very least a regional championship banner while adding more hardware to an already well-decorated trophy case.

“It’s been a great season because we proved to ourselves what can happen if we all stick together and believe in each other,” Gay said. “Right now I think we’re playing so hard because we don’t want this to end. We want to keep having a reason to get together as a team.”

Poland and Licking Valley kick off at 7 p.m.