The above video is from WYTV’s footage of the championship win in 1999.
POLAND, Ohio (WKBN) – The resilient and determined Poland Bulldogs demonstrated a brotherhood that defined the 1999 team as an image of football excellence. Those friendships, developed through sports, have evolved into life-long connections.
The senior class that year entered the halls of Poland Seminary High School as freshmen in 1996, along with a new football coach, Paul Hulea. That combination of teacher and pupil improved each year traveling toward an undefeated fourth season together.
Focus takes shape in the sweltering heat
In the dog days of summer, Poland traveled to Mount Union to participate in a 7-on-7 passing camp faring well against larger schools such as Canton McKinley and former Bulldog coach Rick Shepas’ Massillon Tigers.
With 25 seniors returning, coach Hulea said they had a good group coming back from the playoff team the previous year. He said they expected to be successful.
Senior lineman Josh Bishop echoed those sentiments.
“In seventh grade, I always thought our class was special. I truly believed we were a [group] that was destined for something big,” he said.
“When we were in the eighth grade, we watched the ’95 team make it farther than any in school history,” remembered Andy Colella, who shined in the secondary for the Bulldogs. “That set the benchmark for us. We wanted to exceed that [accomplishment] one day.”
From the outset of training camp, Hulea’s Bulldogs set their sights on making a deep run in the state playoffs.
Poland’s senior quarterback Ben Bair remembered a scrimmage with Boardman.
“We gained a lot of confidence by competing and playing well against them,” he said.
Junior Pete Perry noted, “[Boardman] had high expectations that year. Our defense didn’t allow them to move the ball much. They brought it.”
During the team’s preseason camp, Perry remembers practices almost took on a picnic-like atmosphere.
“It was two-a-days. We practiced hard, took an hour-and-a-half lunch break. People played music, threw around a Frisbee. We’d talk about ways we could get better. After the afternoon session, we’d come back to the field in the evening without coaches. Run routes. Throw the ball around,” he said.
Senior wideout Jeff Wiery considered only local goals such as winning the conference championship or advancing to the playoffs until offensive coordinator Mark Brungard said something profound during camp.
“He said, ‘You must put in a state championship level effort.’ It dawned on me that the expectations were much higher. Coach Hulea would say, ‘Rally around each other.’ We fought tirelessly to lift each other up. We rarely made mistakes, and when we did, someone was there to cover it up,” Wiery said.
During the team’s three-day camp at Grove City College in June, Poland’s senior wide receiver Pete Modelski remembers the group being asked what are your goals for this upcoming season.
“Shaun Saad yelled out, ‘State Champs.’ For some of us, it was the drive to accomplish something that those teams before us were not able to accomplish,” he said.
Challenging the regular season slate
Poland opened the 1999 season with a highly anticipated matchup against Springfield.
“We had scrimmaged each other the previous two seasons,” said former Tiger and current Youngstown State University coach Doug Phillips. “It was good to get them back on the schedule.”
Phillips said the meeting challenged his team after finishing 8-2 the year before and being knocked out of playoff contention in week 10 by Mineral Ridge.
“That loss left a really bad taste in our mouth,” said Phillips, “Now, we had a big, physical Poland team in front of us with lots of speed. All of that tied into great coaching under Paul Hulea. You better prepare for the very best when going up against that combination.”
Poland’s 42-0 win over Springfield was impressive but even more so after the Tigers began the next week by accumulating 19 consecutive regular-season victories.
Over the course of their 10-week regular season schedule, Poland outscored the opposition by a total of 288 points.
Four of their 10 opponents had won a playoff game that year. Springfield topped Villa Angela. Girard shut out Waterloo. Niles defeated Madison, and Struthers handed their rival Campbell a 7-point setback.
“The area was so good in football that year. There were so many good teams, a lot of very good players,” Hulea said.
The Tri-County area (Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties) had produced 14 playoff teams and 10 First-Team All-State recipients in 1999.
The Metro Athletic Conference featured four teams that advanced to week 11 (Girard, Niles, Struthers and Poland). Girard had won six games in a row, and two of their three losses were to eventual undefeated state champions. Niles was victorious over Steubenville in their week 10 encounter. Struthers, led by quarterback Rick McFadden, was one of only two teams that season to hand Mooney a loss.
“In that league, we were battle-tested,” Bair said.
Colella pointed out, “Coach Hulea knew the right buttons to push at the right time.”
In week five, Poland came away with a 17-0 win over Niles at home.
“We were feeling good about ourselves coming in on Saturday morning,” Colella said. “Coach put us in our place. He kept us grounded. He knew there were bigger things on the horizon.”
As linebacker Shaun Saad pointed out, conditioning was one of the main reasons that the Bulldogs wore down opponents in the second half.
“Every Saturday morning at 8, after a Friday game, we’d run the 400-meter four separate times. Coach would time us to make sure you made it. Then, we’d lift weights. We were a well-conditioned group,” he said.
On October 15, Howland jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Poland stormed back to keep their undefeated season intact by prevailing, 38-14.
Prior to the season, sophomore Lou Davanzo was competing for a starting job at linebacker. In their scrimmage with Boardman, he suffered an ankle injury that set him back weeks. Fast forward to week 10, the Bulldogs were reeling from the injury bug, Davanzo was called upon to step in at inside linebacker to face Struthers.
The game plan from a defensive standpoint was to slow down the Wildcats’ game-breaking running back Walter Reyes and to put pressure on future Ohio State quarterback Rick McFadden.
“I wanted to prove to everyone I was ready for this moment,” Davanzo stated. “I didn’t want to be looked at as a weak [link] on the defense.”
The defense clamped down on a Struthers offense that had averaged 27 points per game up to that point in the season.
“We did our job,” Davanzo said. “Reyes didn’t have room to run. McFadden didn’t have time to throw. The following morning, The Vindicator had a picture of me tackling Reyes. I have that framed in my basement.”
“Our regular season was no cakewalk,” Hulea added. “We were challenged. The [MAC] made us ready for the playoffs.”
Formidable post-season trek
After eliminating Buckeye Local and Sheridan in the first two rounds of the post-season, the Steubenville Big Red stood in the way of Poland’s quest to win their second regional title.
Making their first playoff appearance in five years, Steubenville got by Beaver Local and West Holmes to face the Bulldogs at Falcon Stadium in Austintown.
The environment in the stadium was second to none, recalled Perry.
“There had to have been over 10,000 fans there,” he said. “Steubenville brought so many people. Their band was playing when they were getting off the bus.”
Perry’s grandfather, Peter Zarich, was a two-way lineman for the East Golden Bears. Zarich told his grandson at a young age about how thrilling it was for his Golden Bears to defeat the previously-unbeaten Steubenville in 1931. Now, Perry wore his grandfather’s World War II dog tags under his jersey.
Through their first 12 contests, the Bulldog defense allowed an average of four points per game and compiled six shutouts.
Despite the dominance that Poland’s defense had created up to this point in the season, Steubenville’s legendary coach Reno Saccoccia said he felt his team dominated the first half.
“We moved the ball extremely well,” he said.
The Big Red led at the intermission, 14-3.
“They were really knocking the snot out of us early in that game,” Hulea recalled.
“We weren’t playing well — missing assignments, making mistakes, just shooting ourselves in the foot,” Bair remembered.
“We were a loose group,” said Colella. “We didn’t panic. We had players stepping up, speaking their peace at halftime. It didn’t faze us too much when we were down. We were able to stay calm.”
Early in the third quarter, two plays shifted the momentum. On the Bulldogs’ opening drive, on a third-down play, Poland needed to get to the Big Red 45-yard line. Instead, Modelski hauled in a 62-yard touchdown pass from Bair to cut the deficit to 14-10.
Steubenville went to a man-to-man defensive look in the secondary which called for an audible that Bair and Modelski were waiting for.
“Ben gave me a look and tapped his facemask, meaning I’d release and run a fade route. It couldn’t have worked out better. That touchdown moved all the energy and momentum to our sideline,” Modelski said.
The next time that the Bulldogs possessed the ball, Bair hit Perry on a screen pass which he took 85 yards to give Poland a 16-14 lead.
The Bulldogs took advantage of an interception to set up their next score. This time it was their fullback Saad from two yards out to extend the lead to 23-14. Back came Steubenville in the fourth quarter to trim the margin to two points (23-21).
Poland’s defense held Steubenville on their final possession to punch their ticket to the state semifinal.
Saccoccia saw the matchup as one between two evenly matched teams.
“It was a very physical game. I felt the winner would go on to win the state title. We had an opportunity, but in football, defense and turnovers play such a big role in winning and losing,” he said.
In the Division 3 State semifinal, the Bulldogs were up against the defending Division 4 state champion Orrville Red Riders and their highly rated sophomore quarterback Justin Zwick.
Four years prior, Poland had fallen to Kenston by two points (20-18) at the Rubber Bowl just one step away from playing for the state championship.
Poland, once again, fell behind early on a pair of Zwicks’ 50-plus yard tosses to give Orrville the upper hand.
Hulea remembers the play that followed that his dynamic junior playmaker made on special teams.
“Pete [Perry] fumbled the [ensuing] kickoff, scooped it up, caught a crease, and kept going. He got us back in the game,” he said.
Perry said, “That drop rattled Orrville’s coverage, making them break rank. It created a cluster. I broke through a little gap, and I was wondering, how am I still on my feet?”
The Bulldogs never looked back, scoring the game’s final 31 of 38 points to come away with a 31-21 victory and make their first trip to the state finals.
The week ahead would be nerve-wracking for Perry.
“I suffered my first real concussion [in the win against Orrville]. I wasn’t able to practice early in the week. We didn’t get approval until Wednesday [two days before the game],” he said.
Saad’s birthday was the day before the big game.
“When it was cold, we’d come indoors and practice [in the gymnasium]. Run plays in shoulder pads. I was so focused that my mind was on the game and wasn’t on my birthday. We had a spaghetti dinner. At the end, they brought out a birthday cake,” he said.
Perry said even though his team was #1 in the Associated Press poll, he felt that many people weren’t giving them much of a chance.
The Big One
Poland’s championship game opponent, Bishop Watterson, was making its first appearance since 1972 after topping Chaminade Julienne (42-35) to advance to Massillon.
The Eagles competed in three consecutive playoff contests which were decided by a total of 16 points, including their 33-27 Regional Semifinal win over Willard. Their standout quarterback Charlie Frye, was drafted by the Cleveland Browns six years later.
From 1988 to 2002, Mike Golden led Bishop Watterson. In his first four seasons, the Eagles accumulated an overall record of 23-17 and didn’t qualify for the post-season once. Over his final 11 campaigns at Watterson, his teams racked up an average of 10 wins per season and advanced to the playoffs 10 times.
In 1999, Watterson’s only loss during the regular season was against the eventual Division 2 champion, Walsh Jesuit (35-19), in week five.
When the Bulldogs entered their locker room at Massillon’s Paul Brown Stadium, a surprise was awaiting them.
“It was decorated in blue and white. We were told that [Poland’s former coach] Rick Shepas, who was Massillon’s coach, [had a hand in the surprise]. That’s something that will always stay with me,” Modelski said.
Orrville and Watterson gave two very different offensive looks for Poland to scheme against defensively.
“With Orrville, every single play, they come at you with a five-wide [no running back] look,” said Hulea. “Watterson came out with double tight ends and ran the Wing T [formation] every play in the first quarter. I believe we played our best game of the season defensively against Watterson.”
“Our game plan was to shut down,” said Golden. “We knew that their line play was very good. We were expecting to run the football behind our very strong, very big offensive line. The frustrating part was we were able to move the ball against everyone else but struggled to run it against Poland.”
The Eagles scored first on a Mike Vaccaro 26-yard pass play to Matt Pusateri to give Watterson a 6-0 advantage in the opening half.
Jeff Wiery thought back, “We had a few key contributors get hurt during (or before) the game. Our younger guys stepped up; the moment wasn’t too big for them.”
Colella was one of the Bulldogs who was sidelined by injury.
“Part of you feels sorry for yourself. It’s human nature. You have to snap out of it. Your role changes. It’s now next man up. You must be there to support everyone,” he said.
Anthony DiNunzio played strong safety in place of Colella. He was a member of the scout team that hadn’t played a junior varsity game in seven weeks.
“DiNunzio played phenomenally,” Saad said. “He was so dialed in, filled in like clockwork. Cornerback Paul Day — also filling in — had an interception right before halftime.”
Hulea praised that group.
“Those kids were always as focused as the starters,” he said. “It wasn’t always a pleasant experience for them. They were always ready to go. Many from that group went 11-2 two years later.”
In each of the Bulldogs’ first 14 games, Poland scored a touchdown on their first offensive possession of the second half.
To begin the second half of the championship tilt, it would be no different with Hulea calling on his “big back” package. Tim Clayton stayed in at fullback and Shaun Saad gave the Bulldogs’ a thundering punch from the tailback spot. Saad scored the game-tying touchdown on a run from seven yards out.
Then, as Bair put it, “Pete [Perry] had the perfect run.”
Perry scored from 75 yards away.
“Dean Coutris blocked two guys to spring Pete,” remembered the senior signal caller. “It was just the perfect run.”
Wiery added, “I remember looking back and seeing this huge hole open. Once Pete got free, I tried to race him to the end zone. One of my favorite pictures was of Pete and I slowing down as he scored, crowd on its feet, our principals’ hands in the air.”
The Bulldog offensive line took great pleasure in controlling the line of scrimmage.
“There’s no better feeling than to be able to dominate. That was our mentality [the entire season]. We took a lot of pride in doing just that,” said senior linemen Josh Bishop.
The Eagles came back to tie the game at 13 after another Vaccaro touchdown toss.
Poland registered another Saad touchdown run to give the Bulldogs the lead. The score was set up by Bair’s perfect toss toward the pylon to Modelski, just two yards shy of reaching the end zone.
Needing a first down to cement the win, Perry remembered saying, “That 16-sweep is working. I’ll get the first down.”
Number 39 did just that. He pushed through down to the Eagle 10-yard line, jumped up, and signaled first down.
The Bulldogs secured their claim to greatness as they capped off their undefeated 15-0 season with their 20-13 win over Watterson.
“We had an experienced, team-oriented group,” commented Hulea. “All they wanted was to see their team succeed. They left their egos at the locker room door.”
“It was bittersweet,” Bair said of the final game. “We worked so hard, and it was over. We wanted to see something through. When we got back into Poland, people were lined up on the streets. We wanted to get back to the field to raise the victory flag one last time.”
Colella said it was all about the relationships that they formed.
“I think if you asked anyone on that team, coaches included, they’d tell you there was a bond on that team from the seniors all the way down to the sophomores. I think when you have that, you’re going to do all the things necessary to be successful,” he said. “For our senior class, that was our goal from the time we were in middle school to achieve that, and it was a heck of a ride.”
The teammates said at the time, they didn’t realize how much of an impact the win had on the area.
“The expectation for us was to win a championship, and that’s what we did. Looking back now, I realize how special it was,” Wiery said.
“You don’t know it [when you’re in the moment], but it’s bigger than you. The impression it leaves on the younger kids, they’re watching and seeing what you do,” Perry added.
After 15 weeks, the road came to an end with the trophy on the bus.
“For us coaches, we all have full-time jobs. Personally, I was just exhausted when I sat down on the bus. I was asleep when we pulled out of the parking lot at Paul Brown Stadium,” Hulea said.
Hulea went on to say, “My son [Gannon] and his buddy [Tanner Schultheis] – they were in fifth or sixth grade — were begging to see the Star Wars [The Phantom Menace] movie. I didn’t have time, so I said, ‘After we’re done with the season.’ So, I took them the next night. Literally the first scene, I was out cold. They had to wake me up to take them home.”
“Coach cared tremendously about us,” states Colella. “He motivated us. He pushed us, was tough on us in a good way. He was perfect for us.”
Colella, who is now the head football coach at Centerburg High School, picked up on a question that was asked to Hulea in a post-season interview regarding his team’s success.
“Coach said, ‘Come back and ask me that question in about 15 to 20 years from now.’ He’d then be able to tell if he did his job by the successes in our lives, rather than the ones we had on the field,” he said. “I hope he’s proud of us and the people we’ve become. We all have a lot of love and respect for him and the rest of the coaches.”
The player/coach relationship is a strong bond, Hulea said.
“You see the kids at their best and at their worst,” he said. “There’s no bigger reward than to hear they’re coaching their kids’ teams. They’re involved in their kids’ lives. To coach a team so these kids have a good experience, to become a good husband, good father, when you’re coaching, we’re all trying to help them grow up.”
The championship team was invited back in 2019 as a 20th-anniversary celebration before the team’s matchup with Boardman. Fifty-five of the 62 players from that team returned.
Poland took its rightful place among the greatest teams with its teammates playing for one another and achieving the ultimate goal in the process — a state championship.