HOWLAND - In the final week of the regular season, most area soccer teams start gearing up for the tournaments, but the Howland and Poland boys went into their final match of the season with something on the line.
Tied at 15 points apiece on top of the conference standings, the winner of Thursday night's matchup at Jennings Francis Stadium would take home the All-American Conference, American Division crown in each team's regular season finale.
With these implications and the match tied in the 73rd minute, Howland's Dominic Mariano rose to the occasion. Kyle Watson sent in a long, arcing throw-in from the sideline that bounced once into the 6-yard box before Mariano headed the ball into the back of the net for the match-winning goal in the Tigers' 2-1 victory over the Bulldogs.
"We had a lot of balls just hanging out in the middle of the box," said senior center back Ryan Debiec, who watched the play unfold on the field. "What we do a lot of the times is we try to get the ball and tee up for the perfect shot, but on that play, what we want to do and try to do all season is just poke it in the net. That's exactly what we did. It was a great finish by Dominic Mariano."
Not only did Howland (12-1-4, 5-0-3 AAC, American) clinch the conference title, but the Tigers also took the season series with the Bulldogs (11-4-1, 5-3), with both matches ending in one-goal differentials.
Debiec said the team learned from the first match this season, and it showed on the field.
"Obviously it feels great," said Debiec of winning the conference. "When we played Poland the first game, we were a little nervous because they were first place in the conference, but we beat them. We needed to come in with the same mindset. We just played a great game."
One of the biggest challenges Poland presented to the Tigers was the usage of a 4-3-3 formation, which utilizes a striker and two wingers playing further up the field in order to put pressure on opposing team's defenses.
While this formation proved to be effective during much of the first half, the Tigers made it useless by holding almost a monopoly of possession for long stretches in the second half, when the team held a 1-0 lead following a Watson header in the 40th minute.
"We knew that they go with three forwards, and they're very, very effective at that," Howland coach George Stevens said. "If we keep possession, then three forwards are a whole lot less of a threat. That's the best way to counter a team that attacks like Poland - just keep the ball."
The Bulldogs made it interesting, however, when they equalized in the 67th minute. Cameron McCreery picked up the ball in the middle of Howland's half of the field, and took a looping shot toward the net. Howland goalkeeper Kurt Kuszmaul managed to punch the ball up in the air, but instead of the ball going over the crossbar and out for a corner, it fell to the ground and went over the line.
McCreery's goal gave Poland a jolt the team needed, and the Bulldogs kept it going for a few minutes before Howland retook the lead for good 6 minutes later.
"Cameron McCreery hit a good shot, kind of caught their goalie a little too far out," Poland coach Brian Garcar said. "He's a really good goalie - he makes that save probably 99 percent of the time. It gave us a little bit of momentum, gave us a second breath. At that time, I think we picked up our play for the next couple minutes."
Now Howland can turn its sights toward the tournament, where the Tigers open up against Stow-Munroe Falls at home next Friday. Although the Tigers have tough challenges with a district that includes Aurora, Hudson and Solon, this win should give them some confidence, Debiec said.
"This is a huge step up because we've just come off of a tie with Canfield and then a 3-1 win over Champion," Debiec said. "This is definitely a confidence booster going into the playoffs."