JACKSON TWP. There’s getting the monkey off your back and then there’s picking that monkey up and hurling it away like the Incredible Hulk.
The Jackson Polar Bears, specifically the team’s eight seniors, did the latter in last Friday’s 70-42 dismantling of arch rival Hoover in the Canton Division I district final. With the win, Jackson accomplished several things, not the least of which was to put a halt to a run of two straight seasons without a district title despite being the top seed in the bracket.
"Everyone was ecstatic. We knew we had to play well to win our district ... not having won it the last two years, our guys were focused all year," head coach Tim Debevec said. "Championships are won in the offseason, so it's good to see all of the hard work they did in AAU ball, in June, July and August pay off."
Indeed, recent years had proven the difficulty of getting through the district bracket. In 2015, Jackson was the top seed in the Copley Division I bracket - one of the years the OHSAA blended the Canton and Copley districts and allowed teams to choose between the two - and was stunned in the district final by 10th-seeded Medina.
Last season, the Polar Bears again earned the top seed, only to see Federal League rival Canton McKinley oust them in the district final by four points. With their last chance at a state title in front of them, the Jackson seniors knuckled down in the district semifinals to fend off a determined Copley team for a 55-51 win that set up a rare third matchup of the season with Hoover.
The rivals were the Federal League’s top two teams during the regular season and split their two scheduled matchups, with each team winning on its home court. That set up the rubber match at the Canton Memorial Civic Center, where nearly 3,900 fans gathered to see what they hoped would be a great, dramatic game.
Instead, Jackson surged out to a 26-6 lead that grew to 35-10 at the half, dealing a knockout blow to the Vikings before the two teams even emerged from intermission.
"I wish we could re-do the first half," Hoover head coach Todd Blackledge said. "They just bombed us in the first half. It's hard for me to explain. They obviously outplayed us. They pushed us around a little bit. They seemed looser and more focused. We were a little out of sort. We had a hard time scoring and a hard time stopping them."
It was the sort of game that had a feeling of a team exorcising its postseason demons in one fell swoop, giving Jackson its first district title since 2014, when seniors such as Kyle Young, Logan Hill and Michael Zitney were wide-eyed freshmen getting their first taste of the high school postseason.
That season ended with a dramatic, double overtime loss to Federal League nemesis Lake in the Cleveland Division I regional semifinals. Ironically, the Blue Streaks remain alive in this year’s postseason, although their Cleveland regional and Jackson’s Akron regional placings mean the two sides couldn’t meet until the state semifinals.
In the wake of the Hoover win, Debevec admitted that as confident as the Polar Bears were entering the game, even they couldn’t have predicted the 28-point final margin.
"I didn't expect that in a district final game," Debevec said.
Another ironic twist came when Medina upset top-seeded Hoban in the Copley district final, setting up a rematch Thursday with Jackson just two seasons after their district final upset. While some players on both teams remain, it’s clear that both sides are drastically different than they were in 2015.
Still, for at least one night, Jackson was able to revel in the moment, pose with the district championship trophy and temporarily lift the self-imposed blackout on its team Twitter account to post a celebratory message. The win felt like a catharsis and a new door opening all in one motion.
Junior forward Jaret Pallotta was arguably the catalyst on the night despite his more-celebrated senior teammates grabbing most of the headlines this season. The junior forward, fresh off his first season as the starting quarterback on the football team, threw plenty more pinpoint passes as he totaled a career-high 19 points to go with seven assists, one of which saw him track down a loose ball just before going out of bounds under the basket and in one smooth motion, flip a two-handed, over-the-head pass to a streaking Hill for an emphatic dunk.
"Jaret has been solid for us all year, scoring 10 or 11 points a game, averaging five rebounds and five assists, so that was normal for us, but this was even more special ... he kept attacking and working hard. He wanted to win for the seniors and also for the whole team," Debevec said.
As much as any moment of the game, it was a microcosm of the Polar Bears grabbing their lingering negative postseason memories and dunking them away with emphasis. It was only one step in a bigger journey, but it still felt like redemption and relief.
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