Normally, whenever the Niles girls soccer team faced off with All-American Conference, Blue Tier foe Poland, the Red Dragons struggled.
During coach Jennifer Mease's first five seasons with the the Red Dragons, they didn't record a single win over the Bulldogs. That drought changed on Aug. 25, when Niles defeated Poland, 3-1, at Bo Rein Stadium.
"It was really great because Niles really hasn't won against Poland," senior striker Delainey Cowell said. "They're usually scared of (Poland) because it's such a big school or whatever, but we beat them. So, it was really nice."
That win has been the highlight of what has been a hot start to the 2014 season for the Red Dragons, who are currently 5-0 and are ranked No. 8 in the Ohio Scholastic Soccer Coaches Association Division II state poll. Niles has blown up on offense, averaging 4.2 goals per game and posting a goal differential of 18.
The Red Dragons have had the best start under Mease in spite of a rather young squad - one that lost nine seniors from a team that reached the district semifinals last season. They have received some significant contributions from some underclassmen in returning sophomore Hannah Ward, who has seven goals and five assists, and freshman Bethany Rasile, who has scored six goals and recorded two assists.
"We're really young, so no, I didn't really think we'd be this successful," said Cowell, who has one goal and five assists. "We've definitely had a good start to our season."
Another player who has contributed to Niles' early success is junior defender Mackenzie Cowell, Delainey's younger sister. The defense has allowed as many goals as it has posted shutouts this season (three), and Mease said Mackenzie, who earned second-team All-Ohio honors in Division II last season, has played a big role in helping on that part of the game.
"She plays a large role in the defense, and she's really stepped up this year and become more of a leader," Mease said. "She's brought that to the team as well, which is something we needed losing so many seniors."
While the Red Dragons have had some success early, the team will face more tests going forward, considering the ranking. The next one comes on Monday at home against the Lakeview Bulldogs, who have knocked them out of the postseason tournament the past two seasons.
"I think there's still room to grow," Mease said, "and I think we're going to continue to get better and hopefully develop more and be even stronger for tournament."
STATE POLLS: Outside of the Red Dragons, the South Range girls team is the only other local team to be ranked in the first OSSCA polls. The Raiders are No. 9 in Division III with 25 points thanks to a 6-0 start.
Other teams receiving votes but not making the top 10 are: Howland boys and girls in Division I; Austintown Fitch girls, who just missed out on being ranked in Division I; and Poland boys and girls in Division II.