JACKSON TWP. A fast start doesn’t guarantee a good season, but the Jackson Polar Bears are just fine with their winning ways in the early going this season.
On the 40th anniversary of the program’s last Federal League title, ambitions are high and while a 5-1 mark and 2-1 record in league play through six games represents just one-third of the regular season, head coach Anthony Butch admitted that playing well in the opening month of the season can have a significant impact going forward.
"It was important for us. We have eight seniors who have been in program for a while and getting acclimated to the new season and winning has been nice," Butch said.
One of the primary messages players heard throughout the offseason and into the season was to take better shots and be more selective when it came to which looks they took as opposed to passing the ball for a better shot.
Because the team shot below 40 percent from the field last season, Butch wanted his players to pick better shots in the hopes of upping their offensive efficiency.
"One positive been focusing on shot selection. We’re really emphasizing that and our shot selection has improved since last year," Butch said.
The lone loss so far has been a home defeat to GlenOak that got the league portion of the slate off to a sour start. The Golden Eagles came into the Polar Bears’ gym and as Butch noted, used their pressure to take Jackson out of what it wanted to do in the game.
It was one defeat in the scope of a long season, but not playing to the level they’ve come to expect of themselves left the Polar Bears with a bad taste in their mouths. They were able to rebound in their next contest in a unique setting, as the Federal League tried a new scheduling quirk to add excitement to both boys and girls basketball games.
This season, the league scheduled a Friday night when the standard schedule of a junior varsity boys game precedes the varsity boys game. On Dec. 15, the varsity girls game replaced the JV boys contest before the varsity boys played, with both boys and girls JV games shifting to Saturday.
The setup was designed to create additional buzz around Friday nights and give the girls teams of the league a chance to play on Friday night and at Jackson, the concept was a success as both the boys and girls defeated Perry to bounce back from their respective losses to GlenOak.
"That was the first time in my nine years here that the league did that. The girls were really excited about it and I hope it’s something they continue to do in the future. I would like to see it more than once a year because it shines a good light on girls basketball in the Friday night spotlight," Butch said. "The attendance speaks for itself and we have three or four times as many people here for boys games, so this was a chance to play in front of a lot of people who have never seen us play before."
As the the schedule in front of them, the Polar Bears may be done with league play until the turn of the new year, but the schedule is anything but light in the interim. The coaching staff made the conscious decision to up the quality of their non-league slate, meaning that over the holiday break, they’ll face defending Division III state champion Gilmour Academy, regional qualifier Parma Padua and Twinsburg, a program that has been a regular at the state tournament in recent seasons.
Mix in a league whose quality Butch and other league coaches often tout as the best in Ohio and it makes for a schedule more challenging than trying to find a parking spot at the mall during the week before Christmas. Early league games have seen a slew of upsets and road wins by underdogs, something that doesn’t surprise the veteran coach at all.
"That’s expected because I believe the Federal League is the best girls basketball conference in the state of Ohio," Butch said. "The play is high level, players are high quality and there are a lot of high-quality coaches. Our mindset was not to take non-league games that are easy wins like other teams might do, but to get ready for January grind of Federal League and the postseason.
As the schedule heats up, one player who could see an increasingly important role is guard Kerianne Diese, who was the junior varsity point guard last season and has moved up to the varsity and seen playing time both off the ball and at point guard. If Diese can add another steady presence in the back court, it would go a long way toward creating the depth needed to win the league and stay alive deep into the postseason.
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