GREEN When multiple teams share a league championship, each squad can walk away from the season feeling like they didn’t quite reach their aims.
Often, one team seemed to be in control of the race, only to have one slip-up lead to a split title. This year’s Federal League boys basketball race was not that kind of situation. Three teams - Green, Jackson and Lake - shared the title and given the path each took and the way the season unfolded, it was really the only way for it to end.
Lake surged out to an 8-0 start and took the early lead, only to have Green rally back with a series of eye-opening victories over Jackson, Canton McKinley and the Blue Streaks. But just when it appeared to be a two-team race, Jackson ripped off seven straight league wins after a 2-2 start to surge into first place.
Then, in one final plot twist, Lake toppled Jackson in the two teams’ league finale and a few miles away at the same time, Green felled Hoover to create a three-team log jam of squads with 9-3 marks.
"I thought the league was very balanced this year top to bottom," Green head coach Mark Kinsley said. "We had a number tight games throughout year and sharing title with Jackson and Lake was fitting because we all split with each other.
Indeed, all three teams went 1-1 against one another.
Lake head coach Tom McBride saw his team start strong and rally late for its share of the title and agreed that a three-way title share fit with the way the season went.
"Early in the year, a lot of people were talking about the league and I said there was a lot of parity in the league and a lot of good teams where anyone could get each other on any night," McBride said. "The schedule fit us early and we played Hoover when they were without two of their best players in Eli Blackledge and John Keller."
McBride pointed to Green and Lake both having losses to McKinley in which they had chances to win, as Green was up big only to see McKinley rally and Lake had several chances late to take the lead, only to have shots rim out. Jackson had two-point losses to both GlenOak and Lake in which a shot at the buzzer just missed, so all three teams could easily wonder what one or two favorable bounces would have meant in the race.
"All three of us had games we maybe feel like we let slip," Jackson head coach Tim Debevec said. "Green was up on McKinley and McKinley rallied, Lake had the overtime game against McKinley and for us, we lost against GlenOak when a shot rimmed out at the end. Every one of us earned that right to share the title."
For Green, the title may have a little extra meaning because it’s the first in the Bulldogs’ three seasons in the Federal League. As Kinsley noted, last year Green finished last in the standings.
Winning a piece of the title can be traced back to the moments after the Bulldogs faced Jackson three years ago near the end of Green’s first season in the league. On the court after that game, Kinsley noted that the contest underscored what his players and future Bulldogs needed to do to compete with the likes of the Polar Bears.
Namely, he said at that time that Green players needed to improve their strength and work in the weight room to contend in their new league home and capping this season with a title suggests that those efforts have paid off.
"The biggest thing we did in the offseason, we moved our workouts to The Warehouse in North Canton," Kinsley said. "We started in June, went three days a week June until the end of august, started back up after Labor Day and it paid dividends for kids. We finished in last place last year and went last to first. That work our guys put in is the biggest reason."
The veteran coach admitted that winning a share of the title was satisfying because it cemented the idea in the players’ minds that they had proven they belong in their new league and can compete on the highest level. However, a logistical twist means that Green won’t have the same chance to score a few more wins over league rivals this season the way the Polar Bears and Blue Streaks will.
Green is in the Barberton Division I district bracket, seeded third behind Stow and Hoban and without any other Federal League teams in its district. The rest of the league is in the Canton Division I bracket, with Jackson seeded first and Lake second. The Blue Streaks and Polar Bears could meet a third time in the district final and settle their season series, but the only way Green could face either team a third time is if both get to a Cleveland Division I regional semifinal.
The ties between Lake and Jackson have extended beyond the court this school year, as both communities have recently suffered tragedies with the deaths of students. Lake was stunned by the death of Macie Behringer, 16, who was killed in a car accident on her way to school. Jackson suffered its own tragedy as middle school student Keith Simons, 13, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at school last week.
Coupled with a series of suicides by students at Perry in the past seven months and the league has seen an overwhelming occurrence of devastation to students, staff, parents and the community as a whole. In the wake of those tragedies, league schools have pulled together, doing things such as wearing the colors of rival schools at games in a show of support.
McBride noted that sometimes, gathering at a sporting event is one of the first times a community unites in the wake of a tragedy.
"We’ve seen that in various schools. For us, we were one of the first venues of community coming together after the loss of Macie. Then you saw Jackson having basketball as first place for community to come together after what happened there," McBride said. "You’re humbled as a coach because you see community come out and try to find comfort and just support each other. When you get into coaching and you get into league competition, for those 32 minutes you want to go to the bitter end, but when dust settles we’re all there for each other."
McBride noted that because of social media, smartphones and AAU sports, players from rival schools often know one another well and stay in touch year round, including sitting down and talking before games. When tragedies hit, those barriers from on-court rivalries fade quickly and support flows in all directions regardless of school affiliations.
Debevec, who also teaches at Jackson, noted that when someone steps into the role of a coach or teacher, part of what they commit to is helping students through situations such as the ones at Jackson, Lake and Perry.
"It seems like everyone has been able to go through something tragic and it’s challenging time. As coaches you put your arm around them and support them," Debevec said. "As coaches and teachers, we’re in it to help kids and to support kids and families. It’s especially gut-wrenching having kids of your own, but it’s the world we live in."
Sharing a league title at the end of a season with all of these elements in play just seems fitting for Green, Lake and Jackson. Each traveled different paths to the top and dealt with adversity along the way, but in the end, all arrived at the same place.
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