Tigers get even, eliminate Red Dragons

HOWLAND — The Howland girls soccer team got its wish, and the Tigers made the best of it.

Facing Niles in the postseason for the second straight year, Howland earned some revenge from a devastating 2015 loss with a 2-0 victory in a Division II district semifinal.

The Tigers (11-6-1) play Lakeview at 7 p.m. Thursday in the district final at Niles Bo Rein Stadium.

“It’s kind of redemption,” said Howland senior Leah Pollifrone of losing to the Red Dragons in last year’s district championship. “They beat us 1-0 on a little dinky kind of goal. It really kind of crushed us, and it was our motivation this year to get back to where we were and this time get that gold. Not get the silver. We wanted that so much this year, and that’s what drove us.”

They’re one step closer thanks to great defense and a non-stop attack.

The Tigers took a 1-0 lead at the 14:52 mark of the first half. Amarah Howard sent a great through-ball deep down the middle of the field to Bella Merlo, who beat a Niles defender to the ball and sent a shot to the far end of the net. The ball rolled just out of the outstretched arms of diving Red Dragons goalkeeper Alivia Whisler for a 1-0 lead.

The momentum quickly swung following the goal — but not in the direction of the Tigers.

“We just settled in a little bit and played our style,” said Niles coach Jen Mease, whose team finished the season 9-7-2. “Once we play our style, that’s when we’re most comfortable. When we force it a little bit is when we get unorganized.”

The Red Dragons held possession for most of the final 10 minutes of the first half and took momentum into the intermission, but that’s where it stayed.

Howland came out aggressive, with a non-stop attacking style and quickly extended its lead to 2-0. Pollifrone sent a corner kick to the middle of the field, and the ball was pinballed around for a few seconds as Niles tried to clear it. Alex Ochman then corralled finally corralled an apparent pass from Kendyl Buckley and blasted a kick over the head of Whisler at the 32:20 mark.

“We had a talk at halftime because that’s exactly what happened,” said Howland coach Joe Megyesi of the shift in momentum. “Some of the games we lost this year, it seems like we get on top and then all of the sudden we fall into a funk. We had a talk at halftime about how important it was to put in another one. And the style of our attack is what helped us keep the ball on their half because that way you’re playing on their end.”

Howland continued to stay on the attack for the final 32 minutes, but Niles did have an opportunity to cut the lead in half. The Red Dragons were on a breakaway and had a clear shot on goal, but Tigers goalkeeper Kamryn Buckley made a spectacular save to preserve the 2-0 lead.

“Last year was her first year being a goalie, and to see her being this good, I have so much faith in her now and confidence in her,” Pollifrone said of Buckley. “I knew she had that one.”

That was Niles’ last chance. The Red Dragons, who Mease said suffered several key injuries throughout the season, will not defend their district title. The 2016 champ will again from the All-American Conference though. Lakeview beat Howland, 3-0, in their only regular-season meeting.

“Our goal is to win districts, and it always has (been),” Megyesi said. “We have the team, we just have to pull it together. If we keep this up … we’ll be OK.”