JACKSON TWP. With two Jackson teams headed south for their respective state tournaments this weekend, there promises to be plenty of purple and gold on I-77 South.
The school’s baseball program and girls lacrosse program have been arguably the most consistent - along with girls volleyball - in the past few years when it comes to state tournament appearances, so it should come as no surprise that both teams are back this season.
“Our guys are very excited and they’re proud to carry that tradition with them down to Columbus this week and all of the festivities that go with it,” head coach Bill Gamble said. “We’re hoping to put together a really good weekend and our goal is to play two more games.”
The last state tournament trip for the baseball team was 2014, when a senior-laden squad captured the program’s first state title. This year, the Polar Bears once again have a strong senior class that has been supplemented by contributions from a collection of sophomores and juniors who have stepped up and shown that they’re eager to become the next wave of players leading one of Northeast Ohio’s best programs for more than a decade.
Ironically, the seniors leading this year’s team were freshmen during the 2014 state title run, watching as the program’s upperclassmen battled their way through the district and regional rounds en route to Columbus. Others, Gamble noted, had older brothers on the 2014 team and got a taste of what it might be like to accomplish the feat themselves.
Getting through districts this year meant surviving a close call with arch rival Hoover, which pushed Jackson as much as any team has this postseason, falling 1-0 in a shutout by Jackson senior right-hander Kyle Nicolas. A balk led to the game’s only run, but the closeness of the contest didn’t surprise the Polar Bears.
“The tough thing with the district is that everybody knows everybody really well and it’s all backyard rivalries, “ Gamble said. “There’s a lot of knowledge of each team … we got great performance out of Kyle Nicolas and survived to play another week.”
With the district title in hand, Jackson used the accompanying momentum to roll through the regional tournament with relative ease, dispatching Walsh Jesuit (6-0) and Mentor (9-2) by a combined 15-2 margin.
Those wins raised Jackson’s record to 28-1, the best among the four remaining teams in Division I. Only Division III state semifinalist Berlin Hiland (30-0) has more wins than the Polar Bears, who were ranked first in the final Associated Press Division I state poll of the regular season.
State tournament week is unique for many reasons and for Jackson, that means some new challenges. The team’s seniors graduated Tuesday night and the school year ended in mid-May, meaning there’s extra free time on hand for all players. For the coaching staff, that means trying to keep everyone focused while players’ classmates start to enjoy summer fun.
“That’s the challenge this week, handling the schedule for the week, getting ready to go again and focus again,” Gamble said, noting that coaches have been trying to get players ready for this week for quite a while now. “This week is very scheduled and hectic to an extent, but we know that the only thing about tournament play that’s consistent is that it’s inconsistent.”
That means rainouts, date changes, venue changes and time changes and dealing with the accompanying uncertainty. When it comes to long tournament runs, the basketball team’s state title run that included five members of the baseball team provided some training for those players in terms of dealing with high-pressure postseason setting.
The goal in Columbus is adding a second baseball state title to match the second basketball crown the Polar Bears won in March, a feat that would give Nicolas and fellow senior Dillon Dingler the rare distinction of winning a state championship in two sports in the same season. The quest begins against West Chester Lakota West in Friday afternoon’s state semifinal. A win there would propel Jackson on to face the winner of the Strongsville-Olentangy Orange semifinal Saturday at 7 p.m. in the final Ohio high school baseball game of the season.
Being top-ranked in the final AP regular-season poll was a nice feat for Jackson, but the real goal is to hoist the big, shiny trophy on Saturday and earn a spot in school history.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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