JACKSON TWP. It’s time to defend again.
For the second time in a four-year period, the Jackson Polar Bears are tasked with defending their Division I state baseball championship and this time, there are a lot of departed faces to replace. Most title teams have a large chunk of holes to fill because it’s often veteran squads that win championships, but the select number of returnees veteran head coach Bill Gamble has to call upon are battle-tested players with proven capabilities.
"It centers on pitching for us and we have Yianni Skeriotis, who pitched a lot for us last year and he’s going to have to take on more responsibility this year," Gamble said. "He’s been through a lot and pitching in the state championship game was huge."
Indeed, Skeriotis tossed a gem to lead Jackson to an 8-2 win over Strongsville in last year’s Division I state championship game and the Ohio State recruit returns with a wealth of experience in big games playing for both school and travel teams.
Most juniors playing on the varsity level have a limited degree of experience, having perhaps earned a starting spot some time during their sophomore season if they’re ahead of the curve, but for a lot of them, the junior year is when they first crack the starting lineup.
Skeriotis has been on the varsity level the past two seasons, seeing his role steadily grow. Gamble admitted that having a player of his experience leading the rotation is invaluable for a team trying to retain its spot among the area and state’s best teams.
"He’s pitched in some big games for us and that experience going to help him because now, he’s going to have to pitch with name recognition," Gamble said, noting that opponents will likely be looking to do their best against a top pitcher with a college scholarship in the offing. "Yanni had a great offseason and he put on some great weight. His work ethic is outstanding."
Along with Skeriotis, the Polar Bears have Trey Wright back and he’ll move from second base to catcher, which Gamble said is his natural position. Other returnees, such as Davis Graham and starting shortstop Josh Romans, will have to serve as anchors for a team that will plug in new starters all around the diamond.
Gamble is also excited to have Ethan Kulich back on the field after he was sidelined by injuries last season and knows that Kulich and the rest of the returning payers have a big task in front of them.
"We graduated most of our infield, so we’re going to see a lot turnover there, but we’re expecting some seniors to step in and contribute," Gamble said.
He pointed to players such as Matt Hallworth as potential difference makers, as Hallworth can play second, third or shortstop and his versatility could help the coaching staff solve some of its riddles when it comes to the new infield. Add in Jake Ryan, Trent Jones and Spencer Stanton and there are emerging options when it comes to finding new faces for the rotation and lineup, but sussing out who goes where on the field and in the batting order will take time.
Of course, having time isn’t the most prevalent luxury for Jackson given it’s schedule, which includes gamed against Cincinnati St. Xavier, St. Ignatius and last season’s state semifinal opponent, West Chester Lakota West, in the first few weeks of the season.
Oh, and there’s also the matter of defending the Federal League championship because while the program has two state titles in the past four years, the success in each of those seasons began with a strong run in the league. Teams such as Perry, Green and Hoover would love to knock the Polar Bears off their perch atop the league and with the Federal League starting its games sooner in the season than many conferences, Jackson will need to be sharp from the start if it plans on capturing another crown.
Given the program’s track record of success, Gamble doesn’t believe his team will be complacent this season on account of their state championship of one year ago.
"The great thing about our culture and environment is that our returning players know how to work at a high level in the offseason and in practice, they’ve come in right away and set level high for underclassmen these past few weeks," Gamble said. "Also, they know that it’s humbling the further you go in tournament play because you see how any things have to go right and how well you have to play to win a title."
With a schedule that will see them crisscross the state of Ohio and face challenges both at home and on the road, the Polar Bears have a large challenge in front of them. Fortunately for them, it’s one they’ve faced before and appear ready to take on.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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