JACKSON TWP. Different weekend, same outcome.
For the second straight weekend, a Jackson sophomore guard who started the year off the radar stepped up and made a game-winning shot to lift the Polar Bears to a district championship in Canton.
The first time, it was sophomore Kerianne Diese sinking a game-winning 3-pointer to propel the Jackson girls basketball team to the regional tournament for just the third time in program history. Fast-forward one week and sophomore guard Jake Byers found himself with a chance to play the role of hero and seized it, making a game-winning free throw to help the boys team edge McKinley 66-65 in double overtime in a Canton Division I district final and win its third district title in five years.
"I’m not surprised. Jake is a guy who comes in to shoot free throws every Sunday when we have our optional shooting," Jackson head coach Tim Debevec said. "He has only shot one free throw before (the district final this season) but that’s one situation where I’ll take 50 percent."
That Byers made the second foul shot after missing the first is even more impressive given that he hasn’t played major minutes all season. Like Diese, who began last summer as the point guard for the junior varsity squad, Byers had to earn his way into the rotation this season.
His winning shot was merely the capper for a thrilling game that saw the two sides trade their respective best shots and came to an end when McKinley guard Jaedyn McCallup inexplicably fouled Byers in the closing seconds after the Bulldogs scored to tie the game at 65-all.
After McCallup raced over to foul Byers just shy of half court and in front of the McKinley bench, McKinley head coach Rick Hairston tore off his suit jacket and threw it to the ground in frustration as the crowd went wild.
Byers, amidst all of the chaos, received encouragement from his veteran teammates and headed to the line with a chance to save the day. He did just that and after a last-second heave by McKinley was off the mark, the Jackson bench emptied and players mobbed one another at center court.
It was a different feeling than one year ago, when a Jackson team with Division I recruits Kyle Young and Logan Hill rolled through the district tournament en route to the program’s second state title.
"This group worked hard all year, so I’m not surprised that they won the district," Debevec said. "It maybe took a little longer this year to get where we needed to be and sometimes, when you have guys like Kyle and Logan, you get easy baskets, and this year we had to battle more for them."
Playing close games has become a staple for Jackson this season, with two-point losses to GlenOak and Lake and a pair of one-point wins over McKinley on the ledger. The lessons from those games could be beneficial for the Polar Bears going forward, as most of the roster is sophomores and juniors who will be able to apply what they’ve learned going forward.
"Maybe that will hep us down the road. Our guys didn’t quit and they kept fighting," Debevec said. "We made the shots we needed."
In the team’s tournament run, Debevec said he’s seen major growth from players such as Will Hyde and Spencer Stanton, along with Byers’ heroics. Bench players such as Nick Shatrich, Hayden Junker and Byers have been able to step in and contribute and that bodes well for both the near and long-term futures.
One area where Byers and his teammates will look to diverge from Diese and the girls team is the result of their regional appearance. After an exciting regional semifinal win, the girls team lost a close game to Solon in the regional final. Ironically, Solon’s boys team is in the same Cleveland Division I regional bracket as Jackson, offering another chance for history to repeat itself, but the Polar Bears can be forgiven if they take an extra moment or two to enjoy their district title experience.
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