JACKSON TWP. Seven games in, most everything is as it should be for the Jackson Polar Bears.
A team with three state lacrosse tournament appearances in the past five seasons has charged out of the gate 7-0, survived early road tests and has received consistent production from its top players.
Second-year head coach John Kroah knows that a team that suffered significant graduation losses from a roster that reached the state championship game last spring needs time to successfully transition to a new season, but noted that the transition has been a long-term work in progress.
“Losing eight seniors from last year’s team is what we’ve been focusing on the last nine months,” Kroah said. “Understandably so, the team and the coaching staff wasn’t sure exactly how or who would step up to fill these gaps. Realizing that it is still very early into our season and there’s still work to be done, I think we are all satisfied with where we are at this point and quite a few of the questions that we were faced with during the preseason have been answered.”
Some of those questions were answered during a spring break trip to Georgia to face top-level competition in a tournament in Atlanta. Against teams ranked among the best in the state of Georgia, the Polar Bears found themselves in difficult situations that put their new-look roster to the test.
The final game of the trip against Cambridge (Ga.) was arguably the most challenging to date this season and facing an early deficit on the road, hundreds of miles from home, Jackson was able to respond to adversity and find a way to win.
“Winning the last game of our three-game road trip in Atlanta in double overtime was by far the most challenging,” Kroah said. “It truly felt like a state championship game. We were down 5-2 at half and fought back and eventually won in two overtimes.”
The driving forces on offense, as they were at times last season, were Julia Hartnett and Kaylyn Dillon. Hartnett topped the team in goals as a junior and has been on point early this season, tallying 20 goals through the team’s first seven games.
More than a few of those goals have been set up by Dillon, whose team-high 11 assists in the first seven games have helped set the table not only for Hartnett, but for the rest of the offense as well. According to Kroah, the team’s offensive balance has been one of its best assets and with a 62-percent shooting mark through those first seven games, the Polar Bears have mixed disciplined shot selection with accurate shooting and made opponents pay for surrendering scoring chances.
Defensively, the attack has been led by Grace Merrill, a University of Louisville commit who Kroah described as “playing just like you would expect a Division I commit to play.” With a solid, experienced group in front of her, Merrill hasn’t faced a consistent barrage of shots, but when she has seen action, she’s been able to turn most shots back.
In front of Merrill, Morgan Floyd and Maddie Mathieu have emerged as two of the defensive leaders at the back end of the formation.
Asked what challenges the Polar Bears face internally as they chase their first state championship, Kroah pointed to an unusual aspect of the team.
“We are team full of great athletes who play lacrosse,” he said. “We will continue to work every day to make sure we end up being a team of great lacrosse players who are also great athletes.”
Having come close to a state title the past few seasons and having seen the baseball and boys basketball teams capture their own state championships over the past three years, the girls lacrosse team is intent on becoming the first girls team to win a state championship at Jackson High School.
Marking a state title as the goal for the season can place a lot of pressure on a team, but given the success the program has enjoyed in recent seasons, this year’s edition of the Polar Bears has no plans to aim lower.
“The ultimate goal for us is no different than the other 131 teams in the state of Ohio. We want the opportunity to play in the state finals game on June 3 in Columbus,” Kroah said. “Being so close to achieving this goal last year has and continues to be a huge driving force in our preparation and commitment that we bring to the field every day.”
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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