HOWLAND - Seconds after the Howland Tigers' Division I sectional final against Nordonia, all the Tiger girls ran straight to the biggest mud puddle on the field.
"Just get muddy," said Howland senior Ashley Seem of why they dove into the puddle like a slip and slide. "Basically that was the goal - to get as muddy as we could."
Believe it or not, knowing where those puddles were played a major role in the Tigers' 5-1 shellacking of Nordonia on Thursday.
Howland (12-4-1) picked the right times to pass and dribble, avoiding the sloppy areas of the field, to create multiple scoring opportunities on a night when the conditions were more suited for, well, playing in the mud.
"We know this field well, and we took advantage of that because we know where it's going to be muddy and where it's not," Seem said. "We knew how to play in the mud."
That's for sure.
Seem and the Tigers always seemed to be a step ahead of the Knights (10-7-1), whose home field is made of turf. Seem gave Howland some early momentum by scoring the first goal in the ninth minute of the first half. She and Nordonia goalkeeper Ashley Allen both darted for a pass from Howland's Hope Sutton near the far left corner of the 6-yard box. Seem narrowly beat Allen to the ball and fired a shot into the far end of the net.
The score seemed to deflate the Knights, who nearly took an early lead. Howland coach Joe Megyesi said he wanted to target Nordonia's Nicole Lanese, the Knights' fastest player, and midfielder Regina Rudder, one of their best passers. That didn't happen in the first 15 minutes, but the Knights misfired on two opportunities in front of the net.
"We didn't want those two to connect, and they did a couple times," Megyesi said. "So I subbed in a couple of my outside mids, and I talked to them to make sure they dropped back, doubled on (Lanese) and then make sure my other center mid watched (Rudder). Once we started taking away those two, that played us back into our game."
The Tigers held possession for most of the first half, but they didn't add a second goal until 11:02 remained. Howland's Jordan Entler had her shot deflected on a save by Allen, but Na'pier Ramsey was in the right place at the right time, corralling the loose ball and swiftly kicking into the back of the net.
The Tigers started to pour it on in the second half, scoring three more times before the Knights earned their lone goal.
"They were already celebrating, and I kept reminding them that 2-0, I think that's about the worse situation," said Megyesi of his halftime talk, "because then you come out with your heads big and everything else. So, we made a deal that we were going to come out strong, and I feel the first 10, 15 minutes are key in that situation because if you jump on them again, then it really takes the wind out of their sails."
The Tigers did just that. Jenn Boyd made it 3-0 in the 45th minute on one of the best goals of the game. She got loose for a clear shot about 10 yards in front of the right end of the net and sliced the ball to other side. The ball was inches from Allen's outstretched arms and hit just inside the post. Shannon McLain scored 13 minutes later on an assist from Gabby Matlock, and Boyd added a second goal on an assist from Heather Stinson.
The win did more than just advance Howland to the district semifinal.
"It's difficult because I know it's our last game on this field," Seem said. "I'm just glad we came out with a win because it meant a lot to the seniors and to the team that we were able to do this."
Howland now plays Walsh Jesuit, the defending state champion, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at a site to be determined later.