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Howland seeks Trumbull’s first soccer title

HOWLAND — Steady, cold rain poured down on the boys clad in all-white uniforms.

Their keeper, Michael Schwartz, did everything he could to keep every shot on goal from connecting with the intertwined white netting on one end of the bright, blue turf at Ravenna Stadium.

It’s a familiar place, the regional tournament. Howland’s boys soccer teams have been there before. That day in early November 2017 ended with a late goal by Aurora, leaving the Tigers wondering what could’ve been after a 1-0 loss. Another talented Howland team was not rewarded for another dominating season.

Those misfortunes ended this season as the Tigers play in today’s Division II state final against Tipp City Tippecanoe at Mapfre Stadium, home of one of the founding teams of Major League Soccer — the Columbus Crew.

“We felt we’ve played soccer really well here for quite a while,” Howland coach Brian Stiles said. “It’s just we’ve had some issues at the regional level.

“To get over that hump was huge. Hopefully it’s something we can keep building off of.”

The Tigers (21-0-1) have been led by junior captain midfielder Gabriel Altawil, an all-state performer.

It was his winning goal against Lexington in Wednesday’s state semifinal, which pushed the Tigers into today’s state title game.

His two goals against a stingy Ursuline defense helped Howland win in a district semifinal, 2-0.

Altawil is more than a goal-scorer, which make him so valuable to the Tigers.

“He does a real good job of blending,” Stiles said. “I’ve had really good players throughout the years and they struggled to blend to the others. He’s the biggest leader on this team. He makes other people better. I’ve coached a lot of really good players over the years, but it’s the really good ones who make the other 10 better. When he came on the field for us, you can see we improved.”

Howland junior goalkeeper Lucas Brill has posted 13 shutouts this year, including the 0-0 tie against Canfield. Brill posted four clean sheets in the postseason.

He has full faith in his senior defenders, who he’s played with the past three seasons.

“I have a lot of confidence in them,” Brill said.

Howland will be tested today against a talented and sizable team in Tippecanoe (22-0-1).

“One of the biggest high school teams I’ve seen,” Stiles said. “They do really well with their set pieces. They have enough talent that they can hit you at any time.”

Howland has a knack for quelling aggressive teams with an early goal. These Tigers have been tested on this tournament run.

“Sometimes, around here, a lot of teams like to sit back,” Stiles said. “I really don’t think we project that with this team. Most of the teams we’ve been seeing later in the tournament are high-pressing teams. Once they get the ball in your defending third (usually defenders and goalkeeper) they really want to keep it there to try to get a goal.

“It’s probably more physical than we see locally. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment for that.”

The Red Devils have posted 11 shutouts this season, including a 1-0 win over Gahanna Columbus Academy in the other state semifinal on Wednesday.

Brill and the Tigers have thought about how he’s going to face Tippecanoe today.

“Stay as focused as I can,” he said. “I know I trained hard enough in the offseason to get this done. As long as I stay as focused as I can, I think we have a good shot at this as a team.”

As the Tigers exit the northwest tunnel on to the well-manicured grassy pitch, they’ll find out their fate starting at 1 p.m. today.

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