Poland’s perfect storm
Weather plays into Bulldogs; game plan in win over Perry
AUSTINTOWN — It was a perfect storm for the Poland Bulldogs football team in its 17-13 win over top-seeded Perry in a Division IV, Region 13 championship Saturday night at Falcons Stadium at Austintown Fitch High School.
The Bulldogs, as they have done all season, relied on a bullish running game to chew up large chunks of the clock behind a big offensive line and their defense was rock solid and fundamentally sound to knock off the previously unbeaten Pirates, who were averaging over 49 points per contest.
Plus, the rainy weather played into their hands, making it difficult for Perry to throw the ball downfield.
“Our defense was special tonight and we got a little help with it raining like this,” coach Ryan Williams said. “We were praying for that and it certainly helped when you’re playing a great team with outstanding offensive personnel like they have.
“Our defensive backs made a lot of plays, knocking down passes. Our line got some heat on their quarterback, and our linebackers were solid. Our ball-control offense helped, and we won the battle of special teams, too. It was a great team win.”
The Pirates scored first, but didn’t score again until a 32-yard touchdown pass from Drew Schiano to Deandre Malone with 5 seconds remaining in the contest.
The Bulldogs then recovered the onside kick to secure their 10th-consecutive victory and improve to 11-2 with their third regional title. They will play Licking Valley in a state semifinal game next Saturday at a site to be determined.
Josh Alessi was a man possessed in the backfield for the Bulldogs, as he rushed 34 times for 180 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run that gave Poland a 14-7 lead with 5:18 left in the first half.
“We all executed well and right now is the best time of my life, getting to play in a state semifinal,” Alessi said. “Pounding the ball is our game. It’s what we do best and it helps our defense and wears down your opponent. We love long drives. Our offensive line was just taking care of business and giving me 3, 4 and 5 yards on every run. We can’t wait for state.”
That lead stood up until Mike Kushner nailed a 37-yard field goal with 1:38 left in the game to give Poland a 17-7 lead. Alessi was injured on a third-down run the play before, but he vows it won’t stop him from playing next week.
“I dislocated my shoulder and they popped it back in, but I will be ready to go next week,” Alessi said. “No problem.”
For Kushner, the field goal was all about focus.
“We had a bobble on one of the extra points and I had another field goal blocked, but we took that timeout and I don’t know what they were telling the kick team in terms of execution,” Kushner said. “I stayed out of the huddle and didn’t want to talk or listen to anyone. I just wanted to focus on doing my job and helping us get to state. Seeing the ball go through there, that late in the game, it was just awesome, the best feeling you can have.”
After Perry took a 7-0 lead with 4:01 left in the first quarter on Malone’s 20-yard run, the Bulldogs took control of the game. Jack Fulton’s 1-yard quarterback sneak tied the game early in the second quarter and Alessi capped a 10-play drive that took 6:03 off the clock with his touchdown run.
Perry was threatening to tie the game minutes before halftime, but a botched snap out of the Wildcat offense was recovered by Poland at its own 1-yard line and the Bulldogs ran out the first-half clock.
“I can’t say enough how impressed I was that we hung in there and took some of their shots and responded in big ways tonight,” Williams said of his defense that was led by linebackers Zach Ellis and Peyton Mrackovich and the strong defensive back play of Kushner, Andrew Centofanti, Dean Guessler and Andrew Parker.
The offensive line helped, as Poland ran off 9:37 on one drive that spanned the third and fourth quarters, even though Kushner’s 33-yard field goal was blocked at the end of that march.
“We’ve practiced for big-game drives like that since June and our coaches are big believers in the stack-I and we’ve been buying into it since Day 1 and it’s taken us this far,” said Karter Kellgren, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive tackle. “Our line takes pride in getting our backs some holes because they’re tremendous athletes, they pound the rock, take the hit and get up and do it again.”