Jackson's girls soccer defended its Federal League championship, clinching the outright league title with a 1-0 win over Lake on Oct. 12. Combined with a 2-2 tie against Twinsburg three days later, Jackson ended the regular season with an 11-3-1 overall record and 6-0 mark in league play.

JACKSON TWP.  The road was tougher this time, but the Jackson girls soccer team found a way to its desired destination.

The Polar Bears defended their Federal League championship, clinching the outright league title with a 1-0 win over Lake on Oct. 12. Combined with a 2-2 tie against Twinsburg three days later, Jackson ended the regular season with an 11-3-1 overall record and 6-0 mark in league play.

“I think first of all to win it outright is big,” veteran head coach Frank Gagliardi said. “The girls put in a lot of hard work and doesn’t get easier because competition around the area continues to get more and more at a higher level and our girls have to be more focused to get the results.”

The results included several lopsided league wins, but there were also 2-0 and 1-0 wins over Green and Hoover, respectively. Those close calls underscore the elevated level of competition to which Gagliardi alluded, but playing a strong schedule is good preparation for the postseason.

It’s a postseason Jackson enters as the top seed in the Austintown Division I district bracket. Their draw for the first game is the winner of the game between bitter rivals Canton McKinley and Massillon, with the Bulldogs one of six Federal League teams in the bracket. Green, which is slotted in the Medina Division I district bracket, is the only league squad not in the Austintown district.

It’s a familiarity that makes preparing for the tournament a bit easier, but winning those contests is anything but a simple task. There are several teams from well outside Stark County in the bracket as well, so the coaching staff has had to work on scouting those teams in the event they come Jackson’s way once the postseason unfolds.

“In our bracket, we’re working against a couple of Youngstown teams and a lot of Federal League teams so the familiarity is strong,” Gagliardi said. “We took some time this week to go over a few things with that so we’re prepared and ready.”

With a first-round tournament bye, Jackson will have a longer break between games than normal. With a few extra days off, the coaching staff will try to assess each player individually to determine whether they need extra work to stay sharp or could benefit from more rest.

Some of the burden of getting ready for the postseason can also be dispersed to the many juniors and seniors who populate the roster. Because the Polar Bears have consistently made deep runs into the district and regional brackets, there are several players who have been in big games and understand the pressure that comes with such contests.

Those players are able to communicate their knowledge to their teammates and according to Gagliardi, it’s easy to see the overall level of intensity rise in practice as the postseason dawns.

“Some of our more experienced players have those types of games behind them and you can sense the intensity in the practice environment going into the tournament,” Gagliardi said. “We have a pretty good group of girls and you recognize that they’re still high school girls, but you can feel it in the air that there’s an extra edge of concentration, knowing that with each game, there might not be a next one.”

The lose-and-go-home dynamic of the tournament adds gravity to every moment of practice and game time once the regular season ends, so the teams that handle that pressure the best have a major edge on the pitch. Having played quality teams such as Revere, Wadsworth, Strongsville, Walsh and Green this season, Jackson has faced the sort of stiff competition it can expect should it reach the latter stages of the district tournaments and make a return trip to the regional level this fall.

That too would be familiar ground for one of the most successful programs in Stark County in recent years, but like the road back to the top of the league standings, it promises to be a bumpy ride with more than a few twists and turns. 

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com.
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