NILES - The Niles McKinley Red Dragons open the All-American Conference American Division part of their schedule tonight with a jump into the deep end.
The Poland Bulldogs, who invade Bo Rein Stadium, are perennially among the best teams in the conference. If Dragons coach Brian Shaner is looking for a gauge to determine where the team is in its development, the Bulldogs are a good place to start.
Poland opened the season with wins over Marlington, Northwest and Boardman, netting enough points for a ranking of second in the Division III, Region 7 computer standings. The Dragons are 2-1, posting wins over Girard and West Branch and losing to Liberty.
"They are a very good team in every aspect of the game," Shaner said. "If you don't bring your 'A' game, you don't stand a chance to win."
The Bulldogs are strong at quarterback with 6-4, 195-pound Jacob Wolfe, who's also an outstanding basketball player. Wolfe progressed steadily as a starter last season and is now one of the better quarterbacks in the area. He passed for 147 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the 35-14 win over Marlington.
"He's a great quarterback," Shaner said. "They are fundamentally solid and play well as a team. They don't make many mistakes. They find a way to wear you down. They did that against Boardman, when they took control in the fourth quarter."
What makes the Bulldogs so impressive on offense is their balance. If Wolfe isn't striking through the air, there are several capable running backs available that can do plenty of damage.
Senior Ross Gould is coming off a three-touchdown performance in a 42-14 win over Boardman. One of his touchdowns came on a 96-yard run.
Junior Marlon Ramirez is another running option.
"They had eight different guys touch the ball last week," Shaner said. "They're really good up front and coach (Mark) Brungard is known for running the ball, and this year he's not changing. You have to be a man and play tough defense against their run game.
"On the defensive side of the ball we need to play like we did last Friday (against West Branch), swarming to the ball and making sure tackles. We have to play fundamentally sound like we plan and be careful not to give them a second chance. If you do they will make you pay."
The Dragons will counter with a pass-oriented offense led by senior quarterback Kyle Paden. Paden is coming off a strong showing against West Branch, completing 21-of-56 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns. He completed passes to six different players.
"With our offense we have to do what we do," Shaner said. "If that means we're going to have to score (a lot), we're going to score. It will be one of those flow-of-game types of games. It may rain, which will throw another aspect into it."
A win would be huge for the Dragons in their quest to make the playoffs for a second straight season.
"They're one of the top programs in the area year in and year out," Shaner said. "When you're building a program, coach Brungard has the model there in Poland. When was the last time you saw a Poland team down? This isn't different than any other year."