JACKSON TWP. It was a short trip that could have long-term repercussions for the Jackson girls lacrosse team.
The Polar Bears took their annual spring break trip, this time to Maryland, and came home with something they haven’t had in nearly three years - a regular-season loss. A four-day trip to Maryland pitted Jackson against two teams it hadn’t faced before and while an 18-3 win over St. James School (Md.) punctuated the trip, it was a 12-11 defeat at the hands of Elizabeth Seton (Md.) that gave the Polar Bears an unfamiliar taste in their mouths.
"With a loss, especially with a one-goal loss, there a lot of things you can take away from that … there were a lot of twists and turns and ebbs and flows and reflect on individual plays that could have been made," Jackson head coach John Kroah said. "That’s the first time we’ve lost in the regular season in the past three years."
As Kroah noted, in both 2016 and 2017, the Polar Bears’ lone loss of the season came in the state tournament. Many players on this year’s team were either rotation regulars or at least on the roster for those two seasons, so they have known little but regular-season dominance during their varsity careers.
Knowing that such a loss, even one to a high-caliber team from out of state, could hit his players hard, Kroah and his staff tried to break the situation down and help the team process the defeat.
"As a team, it’s different feeling not only to lose in season, but early in the season," Kroah said. "We talked a lot about that this week because with a loss, it created different emotions than we’re used to."
The program’s strength the past two or three seasons has been defense, Kroah noted, but this year the inverse could be true. The offense has been extremely potent in the early going, averaging 13 goals per game through the first three contests of the season.
In past years, the offensive production has hinged largely on the scoring ability of a few standouts, with other players adding in contributions along the way. This season, the attack has been more diversified and in the long run, that could bode well for Jackson.
In the Seton loss, Camille Patton notched five goals, but a plethora of players, including Abigail Lair, Miranda Billett, Anna Woodhams and Anna Winesdoerffer, have shouldered the scoring load through the first few games of the season.
"The past two or three years, one or two girls has had the lion’s share of the goals, but this year the goals are more spread out equally amongst our attackers and midfielders," Kroah said.
If that balanced attack sustains itself over the entire season, it could bode well for Jackson’s hopes of yet another trip to the state tournament. The Polar Bears have inched progressively closer to their elusive first state title - and the first for a girls team in school history - and after losing 15-6 to perennial state power Upper Arlington last season, Jackson knows its road to a title will likely mean going through Upper Arlington and New Albany again this spring should it be fortunate enough to make another run to the state tournament.
In a way, the spring break trip is designed with those aims in mind because this year, as in past seasons, the trek south has pitted Jackson against teams the caliber of Ohio’s best and testing themselves against that level of foe early in the year is both evaluation and preparation for the Polar Bears.
"You’re playing and competing on spring break trips and seeing competition like we’re going to see in our playoff run with New Albany and Upper Arlington. This isn’t a knock against the teams in area, but these trips allow us to play against some upper echelon teams," Kroah said.
While the offense has been steady, the defense has had a few early bumps in the road for Jackson. According to Kroah, the team made adjustments during the trip and the 18-3 win over St. James suggested that those changes had an impact. Of course, so does having senior goalkeeper Grace Merrill between the pipes.
Merrill, a four-year starter and Kent State recruit, is as reliable a presence in goal as any local high school girls team has this season. She claimed the starting spot as a freshman and hasn’t relinquished it since, serving as the back line for a defense that has been the backbone of three very successful campaigns.
"Her biggest strength is her athleticism. By nature goalies are sometimes not referred to as athletes, but she’s an athlete first and a goalie second," Kroah said. "She’s mobile and agile in goal and tracks the ball very well."
How Merrill and her teammates respond to their first regular-season defeat in the past few seasons is the question mark facing them as the season hits its stride, with their answer set to determine whether they hit theirs.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB