Niles, Poland set to collide in Northeast-8 tilt
Niles, Poland to collide in NE-8 tilt
NILES — William McKinley established roots in both Niles and Poland.
The 25th president of the United States was born in Niles. He lived there for the first nine years of his life, then his family moved to Poland in 1852. The move was triggered because McKinley’s parents wanted their children to attend Poland Academy (later Poland Seminary) – at the time a private school.
Seemingly, the Niles McKinley Red Dragons have been schooled by the Poland Bulldogs on the gridiron ever since.
While it’s true the Niles-Poland rivalry wasn’t actually established until 1990, Niles’ last victory (2012) must feel like it occurred during the McKinley administration for the Dragon faithful.
Niles will look to turn the tide tonight when the Red Dragons host the Bulldogs in a key Northeast-8 Conference game. Both teams enter the contest with a 5-1 record. Niles is 2-0 in league play while Poland is 1-1 after suffering its first loss of the season last week against South Range.
Tonight will mark the 34th meeting between the two schools. The Bulldogs own a 29-4 record against the Red Dragons. In the series, Poland has outscored Niles 832-276. In the 33 games, Poland has held Niles to seven or fewer points 24 times, including eight shutouts. Niles has scored exactly seven points in each of the last five meetings.
History aside, Niles coach Jim Parry says his club is looking forward to the challenge. After all, three weeks ago, the Dragons snapped a 16-game losing streak to Hubbard.
“We’re excited. We have put ourselves in a position to play four really huge league games to end the season,” Parry said. “Everyone in Niles is aware of how it’s gone with Poland over the last how many years, but that doesn’t mean a lot to this team.”
“I can say with 100% confidence that our kids aren’t afraid of the history. They know it, we talk about it, and they want to make a difference. Every day they see the history of the Niles football program up on the locker room walls. They want to be a part of that history, and the only way you can do that is to do some things the teams before us haven’t done.”
Niles has already surpassed its win total of a year ago by three games. Offensively, the Red Dragons are averaging 34 points per game. They entered the season with a great deal of experience at the skill positions.
Senior Antuan Gardner leads the offensive attack with 982 rushing yards (16 TDs), averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Senior quarterback Anthony Budak has thrown for 697 yards and rushed for another 156. Senior Nathan Coots leads the Dragons in receptions (18), receiving yards (309) and touchdown receptions (3).
While the offense was expected to be the strength of the team, the Niles defense has been a pleasant surprise. After suffering its lone loss of the season at Alliance, Niles held its next three opponents to a combined six points. In last week’s win at Beaver Local, the Red Dragons gave up just 14 points to a Beavers’ team that entered the contest averaging 42.4 points per contest.
“For us it started with our scrimmages,” Parry said. “Cardinal Mooney is having a nice year, and I thought we were more physical in that scrimmage, and the same thing with Marlington. We came out of those scrimmages feeling good about our defense.”
For me the turning point was Alliance. Even though the score didn’t go well our defense was running to the ball and playing physical until the very end. Right now if you ask our kids, they’d rather play defense than offense. They really bought into the defensive coaching of Larry Kempe and Ryan Barrett.”
Poland has already equaled its win total of a year ago, when it went 5-6 and lost to Jefferson in the first round of the playoffs.
“Our seniors are playing the best football of their careers, and they have done a wonderful job of bringing along the underclassmen,” said Poland coach Tom Pavlansky. “Their leadership has been the difference in this 5-1 start.”
Like Niles, the Bulldogs have been stingy on defense, allowing opponents just 114 rushing yards and 65 passing yards per game. In their 5-0 start, the ‘Dogs allowed just 26 points.
Offensively, Poland mixes it up with a combination of the run (175 yards per game) and the pass (109 yards per game). Dominic Pagano has thrown for 611 yards and eight touchdowns. His favorite target is Josh Macejko (10 receptions, 216 yards). Pagano has also rushed for 225 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Cole Fulton leads the team with 342 rushing yards.
“This team is very eager to learn and to move forward,” Pavlansky said. “They came in on Saturday and took ownership of our first loss of the season and gave credit to a really good South Range team. Then they went to work.
“Our kids have been very steady all season long. They’ve been very business-like all year long and they aren’t afraid to put in the work. Again, it all starts with the leadership of our senior class.”
Pavlansky has seen plenty of Niles games on film. He said that the Dragons’ improvement from a year ago “really jumps out.”
“The most noticeable thing I’ve seen is the way they have improved from week to week this season,” Pavlansky said. “Each week they are getting better in all aspects of the game. This is a dangerous team on offense, and right now they are playing lights out on defense.”
“Watching the films, I recognized roughly 14 defensive players from last year. They are very experienced on defense, and boy do they fly to the ball. Every play you see multiple players swarming to the ball.”
Parry said that Niles will have to play a mistake-free game against the Bulldogs.
“Aside from all the cliches, they are extremely physical and they won’t do anything to hurt themselves,” Parry said. “We have to capitalize whenever we get the opportunity to do so because those opportunities might be few and far between. We can’t do anything dumb to put ourselves in trouble because they are too good a team. They’ll take advantage of our mistakes.
“We have to be very physical with them. They’re a bit bigger than us. We’re going to have to just keep doing what we’ve been doing to this point and do it better. Poland is a really good team, and naturally very well-coached.”
Parry is looking forward to what is expected to be an electric atmosphere tonight at Bo Rein Stadium.
“You have to go back to the COVID year when we had a home playoff game to come up with a game of this magnitude at our place,” Parry said. “In terms of regular season games, you have to go back quite a few years. I know what it’s going to look like when these players look up into the home stands. They’ve earned this shot.”
“This should be a lot of fun.”