JACKSON TWP. Will this be the year?
It’s a question asked both by those within a successful high school program and those on the outside prior to a new season. Specifically, it’s asked in regards to whether a dominant team that lost a talented senior class will finally slip up, take a step back and finally get caught by rivals looking to pass them by.
After reaching the Division I state soccer semifinals last season and saying farewell to a deep, strong senior class, many onlookers wondered if the Jackson Polar Bears girls soccer team could approach that same success this fall.
The answer, it turned out, was not quite - but pretty darn close.
"Coming off last year we lost a powerful group of seniors, but we set the bar high … you just don't know how it will turn out," veteran head coach Frank Gagliardi said.
What Gagliardi knew was that he had a strong collection of experienced defenders back, with Anna Soehnlen, Annie Winkhart and Jess Phillabaum anchoring the starting 11. Still, with those three players and other veterans back, there were quite a few new faces in the lineup and that made for some challenging times in the summer and preseason.
How much of a role those challenges played in a 14-4-5 campaign that saw the Polar Bears make it all the way to the regional final before falling 3-1 to undefeated Twinsburg is tough to determine, but what is clear is that Jackson was able to refute any doubters who thought it couldn’t come close to replicating last fall’s magical run.
"Our senior leadership and maturity were strong … in the summer and early fall, our cohesiveness was not great but we came together incredibly well as the season went on," Gagliardi said. "It was a powerful run considering that some people didn’t know if we’d get close to what we did last season."
In Gagliardi’s 23 years at the helm, last season’s state semifinal berth was the first for the program, so following that up with a regional final appearance is history-making in its own right.
He pointed out that fora high school team filled with players between the ages of 15 and 18 for the most part, facing the sort of pressure that comes with perennially high expectations to keep a successful program rolling can be daunting.
Add to that fact the continued progress of the sport at the youth and high school levels, especially for girls soccer, Gagliardi noted, and the competition figures to only get tougher going forward. More and more districts are building up their youth programs and as more girls get involved, more schools have players who have grown up in the game and therefore have a better base for success in high school.
Because of that, Jackson’s undefeated record in league play and yet another Federal League title aren’t developments the Polar Bears want to overlook on their way to what they hope are winning tournament runs.
"This league and soccer in general continues to grow and get tougher and tougher," Gagliardi said. "In the offseason you see more youth programs putting in time and building a strong foundation, so they’re getting better at the high school level and so it’s tougher to win the league every year."
Key to the success of this season was an approach to leadership that Gagliardi described as a group mentality. Asked if there were specific players who stepped up to take charge or provide direction and words of wisdom in key moments, he pointed out that it was impossible to single out just one or two because a variety of players filled that role at key points in the campaign.
While players such as Soehnlen, Winkhart and Phillabaum did so, others took their turn and as a group, the Polar Bears tried to meet that need for leadership. In the midst of a season with plenty of tough opponents and big games, it was an approach that took the Polar Bears deep into the postseason one more time and while their year ended on a cold, brisk November afternoon at Memorial Stadium in Green, it was another strong season for a team that tends to come up with a way to keep building on its legacy.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB