Poland's football team advanced to the second round of the Division III state playoffs a year ago before succumbing to Dover, 35-17.
On the way to that second round setback, Poland was able to upset top-seeded Marlington, 10-3. With a few weeks left before the Bulldogs begin the 2013 season against - you guessed it - Marlington, it looks like a return trip to the postseason is something that Poland is in prime position to achieve.
Despite losing eight members off of the All American Conference First Team, these Bulldogs still have 25 returning letter winners including 18 seniors. That total is one that has head coach Mark Brungard very excited.
Photos by Mike Capps, Town Crier correspondent
Caught between two Green defenders, Art Duran manages to stay focused on a ball that bounced off his shoulder pads. After a swift recovery of the ball, he made his way to the end zone during last week's scrimmage.
"We have a nice nucleus," said the nine-year Bulldog boss. "We have lots of returnees at the skill positions and lots of depth."
The depth coach Brungard speaks of at those skill spots should be scary to the other teams inside the All American Conference. There is little doubt that these Bulldogs can chew up yards in a hurry.
Sparking the offensive fireworks will be senior signal caller Jacob Wolfe. Wolfe has made 14 starts at quarterback so far and the results have been sparkling. He completed 60 percent of his passes in 2012 while throwing for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns. Standing 6-foot-4, Wolfe possess the type of size a gunslinger should have and he owns something else that makes coach Brungard blush.
"(Wolfe) is a steady, quiet leader," said the former steady quarterback himself. "We are thankful for his presence."
Brungard is also thankful to have six other skill players returning who "all played well last year" in his estimation. Running backs Marlon Ramirez, Michael Audi and Ross Gould, fullbacks Jake Aiello and Joe Caudie, and wide receiver/running back Tyler Evan are all poised to help Poland get past the 25 points per game it scored last fall. Gould is the player with the most yards coming back, totaling 1,100 last year and 12 touchdowns. Ramirez and Evan each topped 350 yards last year too. About the only concern Poland has on offense is the loss of some very talented offensive linemen who helped the Bulldogs rush for 5 yards per carry in 2012. Still, coach Brungard is anticipating some great competition in the preseason from his linemen.
"I'm excited to see the battles on both lines," he shouted. "We're still trying to find a few (offensive linemen) because we know the games are won on the lines."
Seniors Abraham Kassem and Zach Bader are two returnees who should bulk up the Bulldogs along the interior. Linebackers Audi and Adam Wollet will be there waiting should an opposing ball carrier break through Poland's first line of defense.
Poland's secondary seems to be set thanks to Austin Wilson and Aaron King, but Brungard still is a little worried about that group.
"They need to come along quickly," he explained. "We have four starters (in the secondary) at different positions."
Another new starter will be needed at a very important position. Gone from last year's playoff squad is all-world kicker Connor McFadden. Connor the kicker routinely booted field goals of 40-plus yards and kept opposing offensives inside their 20-yard lines with his booming kick offs. With McFadden now getting his kicks at Youngstown State, the Bulldogs' new booter will either be Connor's little brother, Colton, or Robert DeVito. Either way, the kicker at Poland is more than just a roster filler.
"Kickers need to be clutch," stressed Brungard. "You can win so many close games with field goals and field position. (McFadden and DeVito) will compete for our important kicking duties."
The duties of winning the All American Conference, on the other hand, belong to every Poland player. There is no doubt that the Bulldogs are at the top of every pundit's list of best teams in the conference along with Hubbard. Those two schools face off in Hubbard on Oct. 18.
"Hubbard is a very talented team," Brungard admitted. "That week 8 game will be big because their number one goal is to get that monkey off their backs (Hubbard hasn't beaten Poland on the gridiron in a long time)."
Just because the Eagles have assembled a strong squad, it doesn't mean that the other schools in the All American are walkovers.
"Our season is always measured if we beat Canfield and Struthers," said Brungard. "But if we take care of our business, I think at the end we'll be in the running."
That would also mean that these Bulldogs could be running deep into the Division III playoffs.