JACKSON TWP. The future is now for the Jackson Polar Bears.
As a team that spent a large chunk of the regular season ranked at the top of the Associated Press Division I state poll, Jackson has plenty of experienced, talented seniors who have been key parts of the program over the past several seasons. But look beyond the known commodities and you’ll find a collection of underclassmen who have not only contributed this season, but assumed big parts in the team’s 23-1 start.
Sophomore pitcher Yianni Skeriotis, sophomore pitcher/infielder Clay Crawford, sophomore catcher Clay Wright and freshman infielder Josh Romans are just four of the young players who have found their way into the lineup and veteran head coach Bill Gamble credits both his veterans and younger players for the combination of seniors and newcomers working well.
“What I think you’re seeing is a group of seniors that have accepted those underclassmen and their roles. What gets overlook a lot of times is our catchers. Yeah, (Dillon) Dingler gets the spotlight, by T.J. Donnelly and Trey Wright have also done an outstanding job of really taking control of our pitchers in general,” Gamble said. The young guys have stepped into their roles and I think that’s a credit to our seniors who have accepted them. You have guys like Romans as a freshman, Trey and Yianni (Skeriotis) of course.”
The reason the younger players have been accepted, according to Gamble, is that anyone who receives playing time for Jackson has done so by proving themselves within the team, succeeding against a high level of internal competition. For a school with two varsity teams and a successful JV team, earning playing time is no easy task.
If a player can prove himself in practice against a Division I recruit such as Kyle Nicolas or Dingler, then succeeding in a game against another team isn’t much of a change.
“They’ve earned it in practice and they’ve earned it in competition. To be our there, you’ve put yourself through our intrasquad (scrimmages) and our cage scrimmages,” Gamble said. “If you’re able to get our guys out, you’ve gotten out some tough hitters, so I think that’s where the competition level in our practices really pays off for our depth. To get our guys out and for our hitters to hit that kind of pitching, it puts us in a position to be successful when we play someone in a different jersey.”
Having good pitching depth, whether it’s seniors or freshmen and sophomores, is extremely valuable in the postseason. The four teams to reach the district semifinals in the Canton Division I bracket all have top-level arms and the top two seeds, Jackson and Green, both have a Division I college commit as their top pitcher.
Gamble noted that due to the rain that pushed back the first round of tournament games and subsequently postponed the second round as well, the break between the sectional finals and district semifinals is two days shorter than originally scheduled, but it’s still long enough to get rest for Nicolas and Skeriotis, who combined for a shutout of Wooster in a 4-0 sectional final win.
The Wooster matchup was a good one to start the postseason, as the Generals have given Jackson tough games in the postseason in recent years. When tournament challenges roll around, the Polar Bears are able to call on their wealth of postseason experience not only on the diamond, but beyond.
More than half of the varsity roster consists of players who have been a part of the state championship boys basketball team, football team’s playoff appearance or a championship in another sport. As the 2014 state champions and a 20-plus-win team in the two seasons since, Jackson is a target for opponents looking to score a win against one of the area’s top programs.
It’s a fact not lost on the players or coaches, who know that easing up for even an inning or two is something they must avoid.
“We talk about that … every day, we get everybody’s best. That doesn’t change … but that’s a credit to our guys. They get after it every day and they know there’s no throw-away innings or at-bats,” Gamble said. “You’ve got a lot of football guys who played in Week 11 (playoffs), played for a league title at the end of the year … we’ve had a lot of multiple-sport guys who have played for titles and played in the postseason. It slows everything down for them when you have that experience.”
When the season does come to an end, an accomplished group of seniors will exit the program, but based on the results of the season and tournament, the next wave of players looking to take their place and lead Jackson to future state titles is well on its way.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB