On to the championship
Howland adjusts in 3-0 win; gets another shot at state title
The Tigers’ start was a little rocky as the team was unable to make many serious pushes in the attacking third early in the match. Before the Howland attack got going, it was the defense that was holding strong.
Going into the regional semifinals against Bay, Tigers coach Brian Stiles mentioned concerns he had about his defense not being as battle-tested as he liked. Since the regional semifinals, Howland has only conceded one goal and has shown it can handle strong attacks.
“They’re holding up, and that’s what we need them to do,” Stiles said. “We know we’re going to get our goals, it’s just going to be a matter of them holding up from time to time, withstanding that 15-, 20-minute stretch.
“I thought Shawnee outplayed us (early), but no goals and then we kind of found our footing there and got a couple.”
Shawnee’s defensive pressure was strong and led to multiple early rushes for the Indians. That defensive success came from several solid clearings.
“I think they were clearing the ball a lot,” senior midfielder Gabriel Altawil said. “I think we put them under really well, but they were just getting the ball right back to where we started from, making us reset and have to start all over again.”
One concern going into the game was how well the Tigers would fare on the grass field. There was a clear adjustment period, but as the team got more comfortable, the attacks came easier.
That led to multiple good chances for the Tigers, but none of the shots fell. That changed with 6 minutes remaining in the first half, when a shot from Altawil bounced off a Shawnee defender’s head right into the net.
At that point, Howland’s offensive confidence picked up.
Not long after a penalty kick from Altawil sailed wide, Tristen Rose put a shot away, and the momentum was completely on the Tigers’ side. A few minutes later, senior Jordan Sperling walked one in to give Howland a 3-0 advantage with 12 minutes remaining.
The state title game at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus also will be on a grass surface, so getting more comfortable with the different ways the ball moves on that surface is crucial.
“I think the big thing is just getting back and training,” Stiles said. “I think getting some more work on grass will be good. The balances aren’t always perfect on grass like they are on turf. I think we were struggling with that, and give credit to Shawnee. They really played hard, and they made it difficult on us.”
The Tigers (21-0-1) get a rematch in the state finals against Tipp City, the team that took them down in last year’s state finals, 1-0. The matchup is exactly what Howland wanted.
“In the back of our minds, that’s kind of what we wanted,” Altawil said. “I think this year we’re a much different team. We’re a lot more attack-oriented, so we just need to keep our composure and try to get some revenge.”
The Tigers are taking a little time to enjoy the win, but they are already licking their chops.
“We’ll enjoy this a little bit, next 10 minutes but, our leaders, we’ve been here before, so we know we want the win. This isn’t good enough for us yet,” Sperling said. “Our mindset’s definitely going to be very focused the next couple days in practice, and then take our shot Saturday at Tippecanoe again, which is actually what I could have wished for because I kind of want my revenge.”
Going into the rematch with the Red Devils, Stiles said Howland needs to maintain a level head because Tipp City will be able to capitalize on any mental lapses.
“I want to make sure we limit our mental mistakes,” Stiles said. “We’re still getting some back there that I know in the next game is going to be punishing on us, so we’ve got to make sure we clean everything up, and we’re gonna have to play our best game of the year Saturday afternoon.”
Start time for Saturday’s championship in Columbus is set for 4 p.m.