HOWLAND - One of the hardest leads to defend in soccer is the two-goal lead. And for the better part of 65 minutes, the Howland Tigers boys soccer team was forced to do just that during their Thursday evening match against Niles at Jennings Francis Stadium.
While the Tigers managed not to fall prey to the old adage, Howland went through a few nervous minutes late to hold on for a 2-1 win over the Red Dragons at home. Howland coach George Stevens said his players didn't relax, which causes most two-goal leads to evaporate, but instead pointed to Niles' effort, especially in the second half.
"I wasn't nervous because of the score," Stevens said. "We didn't play particularly well at the end. We played very, very well to start the game. I don't think we relaxed - it's just that Niles didn't quit. So, it was a great game. That's an old-style, Howland-Niles game."
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Howland’s Benji Rush (5) heads the ball away from Niles’ David Chambers during the first half of their game Thursday. Rush had an assist for the Tigers in their 2-1 victory.
Following the first 15 minutes, it didn't look like a typical rivalry match between the Tigers (3-1-2, 1-0-1 All-American Conference, American Division) and Red Dragons (2-4-1, 0-1-1 AAC, American Division). In fact, Howland was running away with it. The Tigers kept the ball in Niles' half for the most part and created five of their eight first-half shots on target in the first quarter-hour.
During this time frame, Howland produced both of its two goals. In the 12th minute, Howland's Benji Rush centered a pass from the left wing to Matt Hardaway, and the junior blasted a 20-yard shot into the lower left side of the net. Then, in the 14th minute, a through ball put Dominic Mariano behind the defense and on net, and Mariano chipped a shot over Niles goalkeeper John Mizgerd, who came charging off his line.
"For the first 15 minutes, we were happy with our performance, but I think we got too carried away with ourselves and tried to keep pressing the game too much," Howland senior Tyler Spain said. "We didn't conduct ourselves the right way and try to possess the ball and play the way we were the whole time."
Niles weathered the storm for the rest of the first half, and in the second half, the Red Dragons grew into the match.
Although they still struggled to create scoring opportunities, the Red Dragons saw more of the ball, which cut into Howland's monopoly of possession. Niles managed to keep the ball in Howland's half for longer stretches, and it seemed like the Red Dragons could climb back into the match, despite limited substitutions because of a small roster.
Niles finally broke through in the 75th minute off a corner from Seth Egry. Niles' Maleek Martin got on the end of Egry's corner and scored with a low shot from the edge of the 6-yard box.
"Fatigue's been like an enemy to us, but I'd say because of a rivalry game, a lot of those kids pulled extra stuff out of themselves - extra effort, extra heart," Niles coach Josh MacMillan said. "Once the goal came, even though it was late, they just weren't tired anymore. They believed that they had a chance, and they just kept playing."
With Niles pressing for an equalizer in the final 5 minutes, Howland did everything to waste time - kicking the ball deep into Niles' half, making many substitutions and taking time following fouls.
Spain himself received a yellow card with 3 seconds remaining as he took way too long getting out of the way of a Niles free kick, which made it difficult for the Red Dragons to create something with so little time and 40 yards to go.
"Sometimes you've just got to do what you've got to do to get through those last couple of seconds," Spain said. "If that's what it takes, then it is what it is."
In spite of the struggles, it was a big win for Howland, its first conference victory of the season. Considering how tough the schedule is for the Tigers next week, it gives them something to work with this weekend.
"It felt good," Spain said. "We have two big games against Canfield and Poland coming up next week that we have to really bear down and try to find a way to win."