JACKSON TWP. Unlike an attorney wrapping up his or her case in court, the Jackson defense never rests - at least it hasn’t in quite while.
That defense is the reason the Polar Bears have played themselves back to the top of the Federal League boys basketball championship, and while last year’s state title team succeeded largely with its offensive firepower and depth, this year’s edition of the team has found traction by getting into a good defensive stance, gritting its teeth and scrapping to stop opposing offenses.
"It started probably after we got back from Florida and lost to Green," head coach Tim Debevec said. "We gave up 70 (points) in Florida and 77 to Green, but we’ve refocused on defense and we’re more comfortable playing at home."
In the wake of a 77-64 loss to Green, the Polar Bears refocused their defensive efforts and the results have been extremely positive.
After losing two of their first four league games, they won six straight to surge to the top of the standings and did so by shutting down opposing offenses. Jackson allowed 39 in a win over Hoover, 40 in a key win over Lake and 37 in a return match with Green.
In the six-game league winning streak, Jackson allowed 43.2 points per game, in the process shutting down some of the league’s best scorers, including Green’s Kaleb Martin and Lake’s Jake Maranville.
According to Debevec, there haven’t been any magic elixirs to improve the defense, so the improvements have come through detail work between games.
"We break down things in practice," Debevec said. "Every day in practice, were work on half-court defense or our full-court defense. We maybe got away from that early in the year, but it’s made a difference."
The turnaround on defense has been a team effort, but the veteran coach cited the work of Sean Reed and Will Hyde as key elements in the run of success. Reed routinely guards the other team’s best offensive player and taking on the likes of Martin, Maranville and other top scorers is a physically demanding endeavor.
Hyde’s contributions have come on the inside as the junior forward has become an effective shot blocker. In one recent win, he tallied eight blocks and the rest of the team has benefited from the presence Hyde provides in the paint.
"We’re getting good defensive effort," Debevec said. "That means all five guys defending. Before, we had maybe three guys playing good defense at a time, but now everyone is doing it and we’re doing it for 32 minutes, not 25 or 28."
Because of those efforts, a 2-2 league start has faded and Jackson enters the final week of the league season with at least a share of the Federal League title. The results of the final games will determine whether one team emerges as the undisputed champion or two or more teams share the crown.
"We started off 2-2 in the league and dropped one or two we shouldn’t have, but playing one game at a time, does allow you to put yourselves in position where, if we win our last two two, we win it outright and it’s always good to have a chance to win it at the end."
The Polar Bears' hot stretch also helped shape up tournament seeding in which Jackson was named the top seed over Fed rivals Lake (second) and McKinley (third). Some of the teams the Polar Bears have faced in recent weeks could be tournament opponents in the weeks ahead, so wins in those contests would be nice confidence boosters as well.
The method of reaching this point in the season with a chance for a league title may differ from what carried many recent Jackson squads to the same juncture, but that fact underscores the reality that each year and each team are different even with the same coaching staff. To finish what they’ve started, the Polar Bears will need to press their case a bit further and defend like their season is on the line - because from here on out, it is.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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