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Bulldogs in unfamiliar position as playoffs are set to begin

February 19, 2020
Nik Zirounis , The Town Crier

Poland's boys basketball team kept its very slim shot of winning the Northeast 8 championship alive with four consecutive league victories.

The latest in that string of wins came on Valentine's Day night when they went to Niles and stole the Red Dragons' hearts 62-29. That triumph was preceded with ones over Hubbard, Jefferson and Lakeview. All of those wins were needed since Poland's upset loss to Girard on the final day of January set Struthers in complete control of the conference. The Bulldogs' only chance of capturing their second straight league title is to have the Wildcats lose their last conference game this Friday to Niles. Even if Struthers was to stumble against the 2-11 (in conference) Dragons, the Bulldogs would only share the league championship.

With the NE8 just about in the rearview mirror, it's time for the Bulldogs to focus on the upcoming Division II tournament. Poland's men made mincemeat of most of their competition in the Youngstown District a year ago advancing all the way into the state regionals. This year, head coach Ken Grisdale's gang finds themselves in the strange position of playing from behind so to speak. Poland is the number 5 seed, and although they have secured a first round home game, the Bulldogs are used to earning a first round bye. They will host number 12 seed Niles on Feb. 25. That's the same Red Dragon group that the Bulldogs unceremoniously lost to in mid-January at home before blasting them last Friday in Trumbull County.

"Opening with Niles will be a stiff challenge," said Poland head coach Ken Grisdale. "We've split with them during the regular season."

The grudge match between the Bulldogs and Dragons looked strangely similar to the two teams' first encounter. Although Poland held a 23-18 lead at halftime, Niles seemed to be in control of the contest throughout the first half. Whatever Grisdale grilled into his kids' minds in the locker room must have stuck. The Bulldogs came out in the third quarter and played like the Poland teams of yore. They doused all of the Dragons' fire outscoring them 20-3 in the third period to take a 53-21 lead into the fourth period. All told, Poland outscored Niles 39-11 in the second half. Senior guard Michael Cougras got hot after halftime as the Bulldogs began to assert themselves. For the game, Cougras collected four 3-pointers and ended the evening with 16 points. Fellow senior Adam Kassem was right behind Cougras in the scoring column with 15 points. Sophomore Michael Gordon scored eight.

Poland played another nip and tuck first half against Hubbard at home on Feb. 11. The score was tied 31-31 with the struggling Eagles, but just like later in the week, Poland plowed forward after intermission outscoring the visitors 32-25. The 63-56 triumph was Poland's tenth this season in the conference. Cougras led the team in scoring once again with 19 points. Junior guard Andrew Centofanti went for 11 points. Senior Andrew Kassem was the third Poland player in double digits with 10. Poland held a huge 39-26 advantage in rebounds allowing it to lengthen the lead late in the second half.

Prior to the start of the districts, Poland will play Austintown Fitch and Canfield. The clash with the rival Cardinals will be a rematch of their game from early January. The Cards clipped the Bulldogs in Poland that night 35-33. Beating their old nemesis would be a great way for the Bulldogs to build momentum entering the postseason. If that momentum carries them past the Dragons as expected, then the Bulldogs will potentially have a third encounter with the hated Cardinals. Fourth seeded Canfield hosts number 13 Salem in its sectional semifinal showdown.

"If we're fortunate to get past (Niles) we know the Cardinals are on the horizon," Grisdale said. "Anytime the (route) 224 rivals meet expect a major battle. They got us earlier in the season."

The top team in the bracket is 14-6 Chaney. The Bulldogs would clash with the Cowboys if they make into the district round. These schools haven't met this season, but it was Poland that won a thrilling overtime contest in last year's district championship. Regardless of who Poland plays, Coach Grisdale is pumped for the postseason and is very practical when it comes to predicting on how well his club will perform.

"We're excited about the upcoming challenges," he said. "If you don't play a solid 32 minutes you aren't likely to move on. One at a time is the focus right now. We can't get caught up with what might happen. You have to focus on the moment."



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