WARREN - This time the Poland Bulldogs didn't step backwards from the challenge.
By standing up to the physical style of play favored by the Cardinal Mooney Cardinals, the Bulldogs will take a step to the Division II regional level. It came by way of a strong performance from start to finish in a 63-46 win in a district final before a capacity crowd Saturday at Warren G. Harding High School.
The top-seeded Bulldogs showed no signs of nerves by quickly assuming an 11-0 lead. The Cardinals got as close as three points early in the third quarter, but the Bulldogs (23-2) always had an answer.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Poland's Kyle Dixon (21) and George Chammas (33) celebrate the victory on Saturday night against Mooney.
"Last year Mooney got up in our grille and put us on our heels and showed us that if you want to be champ to not back up," Poland coach Ken Grisdale said. "You better come forward, and I was really proud of our kids to do that."
The Cardinals (15-9) had an easy go of it in registering a 51-33 win over the Bulldogs in the district semifinals last season. The loss and the way Poland played that night remained on the minds of every Bulldog player since then.
"As soon as that season ended, every day we were hoping we would have a shot at them," said Bulldogs senior Jacob Wolfe, who scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. "It feels good."
As Poland's leader on the court, Wolfe shouldered much of the burden to get the job done. He answered the challenge in many ways, whether it was grabbing a rebound, driving to the basket for a momentum-changing layup at the outset of the fourth quarter or recording one of his five blocked shots.
"He did (carry us), and he's supposed to," Grisdale said. "He's a three-year starter. We expect that from him. We ask him to do a little more. Versus their 1-3-1 we wanted him to make some of the decisions. He did a great job on penetrating and finishing and a great job on defense."
The Cardinals needed a strong shooting effort from the perimeter after trailing, 16-7, following the first quarter. Instead, they were 14 of 46 from the field, including a 6-of-25 effort from beyond the 3-point line.
"That's not our normal shooting night," Cardinals coach Brian Danilov said.
Mooney began to take on water from the start. A 3-point shot by Dan Black started an 11-point run that ended with a 3-poiner by Nick Gajdos. The Cardinals weathered the onslaught enough to remain close enough entering the fourth quarter to make a miracle run.
"One of the things I worry about all the time with these guys is sometimes we have a hard time scoring," Danilov said. "Coming out of the gate and not scoring hurt."
The Cardinals trailed 25-20 at halftime and were down 40-29 late in the third period when Andrew Armstrong made a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 40-32 and breathe some life into their hopes to start the final session. Those hopes were dashed quickly when Wolfe scored on a pair of drives. Two free throws by Black then extended the lead to 46-32.
Mooney managed another minor run to get the differential to 50-35. Jared Burkert then stuck a dagger into the hearts of the Cardinals with a clinching 3-point shot.
"For a while it was close," Wolfe said. "It could have gone either way. If they had started hitting a few shots it could have gone in their favor. Losing last year really hurt. We knew we had to get them tonight."
Black scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to finish with 18. Kyle Dixon added 10 points and nine rebounds.
Armstrong scored 17 points. Joey Cunningham added 10 for the Cardinals.
The Bulldogs, who last won a district title four years ago, will play Cleveland Central Catholic in a regional semifinal at the Canton Memorial Civic Center Thursday at 6:15 p.m.