JACKSON TWP. Winning a state championship is never easy - the Jackson Polar Bears simply made it look that way at times.
In capturing the second state title in program history - and the second of the school year for the district - Jackson rolled past its final two foes by a combined margin of 13-3, defeating Strongsville in an all-Northeast Ohio state title game by an 8-2 count.
The win made Jackson one of a select number of schools with two state championships in baseball and part of an even more exclusive group of schools with two state titles in a single year after the basketball team’s Division I championship in March.
Seeing his team experience the same thrill as the 2014 title team left head coach Bill Gamble with a smile on his face and plenty of memories to carry forward.
“I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys that all season long played with a bullseye on their back with a lot of the preseason rankings, but with these guys handled pressure as well as you could for 16- and 17-year-old players in this type of environment,” Gamble said. “As a team, these players responded to the way we challenged them to play after sectional and district run. We challenged them to play great baseball win or lose and that’s what they did.
Championship weekend was a blend of present and future for the Polar Bears as senior right-hander Kyle Nicolas pitched his team past Lakota West 5-1 in a state semifinal, throwing a complete game with seven strikeouts and just three hits allowed, and sophomore Yianni Skeriotis was just as solid, striking out five while pitching a complete game of his own.
Skeriotis may have been pitching in his first state tournament game and facing older, more experienced batters, but Gamble noted that the lanky right-hander is no stranger to the big stage.
“Yianni has thrown the entire year as our number two starter, so he’s throw in some big federal league games on the road and pitching in a big environment is nothing new,” Gamble said. “For him in that moment to disregard the pressure and to go out there, whether you’re a sophomore junior or senior, and pitching the way he did is amazing.”
Gamble credited his coaching staff and senior catcher Dillon Dingler with calling a great game and keeping Skeriotis calm in pressure spots, although the pressure lesseneed as the game went on as the Jackson offense powered its way to an 8-0 lead through five innings, giving Skeriotis and the defense behind him a chance to relax and know that they had a big lead with which to work.
The win capped arguably the best year ever for Jackson sports, from the football team making the playoffs and the volleyball team making another deep tournament run last fall to the basketball team’s title this spring and the girls lacrosse team reaching the state final for the second time ever, with several other sports winning league and district titles as well.
With five players from the basketball team also on the baseball team, the year couldn’t have ended on a better note. Among that group, players such as Ethan Kulich, Nick Shatrich and Dingler had the sort of school year a young athlete would script out if asked to detail the perfect year.
They were a part of a football team that guided Jackson to its first playoff appearance since 2004, were part of the basketball team’s title run and played key roles for the baseball team’s own trek to glory. Ending their careers with back-to-back state titles is a feat that Nicolas and Dingler will have a tough time topping even though both will be going on to play college baseball next season.
Having returning players such as Coolidge and Shatrich with so much championship experience is something Gamble and head basketball coach Tim Debevec will be looking forward to - once those players help football coach Tim Budd’s team chase another postseason berth this fall.
Explaining how his team was able to craft such a successful tournament run with so few close games - a 1-0 win over Hoover in the district final was Jackson’s only close call - and outscore its opponents by a combined margin of 44-12, Gamble pointed back to the regular season as the sort of proving ground the Polar Bears needed.
Ironically, that schedule mirrored a quirk from basketball in which one of Jackson’s two losses came to St. Vincent-St. Mary, which won the Division II basketball title. In baseball, Jackson also lost to the eventual Division II champion, Tallmadge, during the regular season and also lost to previously undefeated Berlin Hiland, which went 31-0 before falling in the Division III baseball title tilt.
“It shows the strength of our schedule … we played Strongsville earlier in season and if you look at the state tournament, we played three of the other seven teams there,” Gamble said. “We wanted challenge guys the entire season and it’s a credit to our guys the way they responded. That’s why we played teams like Central Catholic, Walsh Jesuit, Hudson and why we played at Canal Park, Kent State and Thruman Munson, so we’d have experience playing in big stadiums.
That experience paid off in a big way on the largest stage, culminating in a championship game that was largely drama free, but featured a happy ending for the Polar Bears.
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