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Niles falls to Poland: Bulldogs win NE-8 title with 4-0 shutout

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Niles junior Cheyenne Zack and Alaina Erwin battle on defense versus Poland’s Ava Blinsky during the first half Monday evening. The Red Dragons were defeated, 4-0.

POLAND — The week following the release of the tournament bracket can always be interesting.

No, the games don’t count for seeding or have any sort of playoff implications, but those last few contests could be just what some teams need as a tune-up.

Perhaps the extra contests could be used to heal up starters, with reserve players benefiting from game experience.

Or, if you’re the Poland Bulldogs, there’s a conference title that’s still to be won.

Check that off the list, especially for the four Poland seniors who’ve never felt the pride in a Northeast-8 Conference title.

That changed Monday evening, with a 4-0 shutout of Niles providing the Bulldogs with their 12th win of the campaign and an NE-8 title, adding onto their first round tournament bye.

It carries a lot of meaning for first-year coach Neil Huda, but even more so for his 19 players. If anything, it’s reflective of the time put in outside of gameday.

“It’s the hard work they put in, and the dedication that they have for soccer, and they have for each other,” Huda said. “They do a lot of bonding when they’re off and together, they go places, and that has a lot to do with it, like a family. Everyone wants to play for everyone.”

From about 15 yards out, senior Mia Marantis shot and scored within the first five minutes of the match, providing Poland with that much-needed early advantage, especially over a Niles team it only beat 1-0 earlier in mid September.

It was the beginning of a huge night for Marantis, who later scored prior to halftime after showing some great possession on the attack.

“Getting an early lead, it helps us, and it calms us down because we still have to play hard, but we just know we have it,” Marantis said. “I was really excited (after the second goal), I feel like the season went by way too fast, but it’s okay.

“I feel like we’re really close, our friendship, on and off the team, we do team bonding, so I feel like we’re all just happy to play together, and we’re all just friends, it helps build the chemistry for sure.”

Chipping in with scores were senior Syda Masucci (29′) and freshman Lucy Harrell (64′).

Masucci, like her fellow seniors, never had the opportunity to earn a conference title.

As a senior, everything is just a tad more special, especially when you get to compete with your younger sister, Samantha, and two other sets of sisters.

“We were all going really hard because this depended on the conference, so I think it was pretty exciting for all of us,” Masucci said. “I feel pretty confident, if we all play together like a team like I know we can, then I think we can do good.

“Last year we struggled with getting up, but I feel like this year we started really hard and that keeps us motivated and stuff like that.”

Poland (12-2-1) recorded its 10th clean sheet of the campaign, thanks in large part to sophomore goalkeeper Lenanne Williams. The Bulldogs will have a first-round bye as the ninth seed in the Division II Northeast 1 bracket, playing the winner of Salem and Edgewood.

Meanwhile, Niles (9-6) used Monday evening as an opportunity to rest some players and lick its wounds prior to postseason play. With a date set with Marlington in the first round, there’s plenty to look forward to after the regular season flew by.

“We’re still missing two games because of getting closed down due to COVID, but we’re excited for the playoffs,” coach Scott MacMillan said. “We’re excited about the group of girls going into the game against Marlington a week (from Monday).

“I know that we’ve had common opponents, and we should match up well with them, I’m sure they’re a strong team, I’ve never played them before in our history, we’ve never played them, so it’s fun to play someone you’ve never played before, so we’re looking forward to it.”

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