It's been an impressive season for the Jackson girls basketball team.

It's been an impressive season for the Jackson girls basketball team.

With 15 wins in their first 21 contests, the Polar Bears have built in much the way they wanted on a regional final appearance last year, yet there is little relief or comfort in that success.

Why?

Because as one look at the league standings shows, the Federal League is a meat grinder this season, full of quality teams that - much to the chagrin of all seven league coaches - will all compete in the same district tournament.

"The Federal League top to bottom, team one through seven, is the best league in the state," head coach Anthony Butch said. "To have all seven teams in the same district denies multiple Stark county teams the opportunity to play a regional game at the Civic Center. This doesn't seem right."

Butch's lament is one shared by other Federal League coaches. The veteran coach pointed out that last year, the Ohio High School Athletic Association went to blended districts that combined two district tournaments into one larger entity, allowing twice as much room for Federal League teams to spread out and not have to play each other as often in the sectional and district rounds.

That isn't the case this season. All seven league teams - Jackson, Lake, Hoover, Canton McKinley, Perry, GlenOak and Green - will compete in the North Canton Division I district, an arrangement that means that state-ranked teams such as McKinley and Hoover could meet before even getting through the district final.

Most leagues don't have that dilemma because they tend to be bigger than the Federal League and include teams from multiple Divisions. The nearby Portage Trail Conference, for example, features teams from Division II, III and IV, so its teams are scattered at different sectional and district tournaments around the area.

This year is an even more extreme example of the depth of the Federal League turning the postseason into a true battle royale, according to Butch.

"Having four teams in the Federal League this year with 15-plus wins speaks to just how good the competition was this season," Butch said. "Each team has at least one full-scholarship girl and a high quality head coach which creates parity like I've never seen before."

Parity, though, often suggests a bunch of good teams, but none that really stands out as elite. Yet McKinley and Hoover have both spent multiple weeks in the Associated Press Division I top 10 and conversely, neither one is undefeated in league play.

McKinley nearly lost to Green, which started 2-7 in league play, and lost on a buzzer-beater to GlenOak. Jackson played McKinley tough in two losses by a combined 12 points and defeated Hoover in overtime. Losing to Perry and winning by just five points at Green served as reminders that there simply aren't any easy games on the league schedule.

"Every single night you have to be ready to play because literally any team could beat any team," Butch said. "It was been an absolute grind, night in and night out, you have to be ready to play."

That grind will now extend to the postseason, whether league coaches like it or not. The stakes will be raised with each round that passes, creating an amped-up version of the regular season. It may indeed have the effect of weeding out teams capable of making it deep into the postseason were the blended districts still in place, as Butch suggested, but for now it is the reality the league's seven teams must face.

Only Garfield, Louisville, Massillon and Barberton are non-Federal League teams in the sectional and district bracket at Walsh University, meaning it is likely that every game in the sectional final round will feature at least one Federal League team. As many as three of the four sectional finals could be all-Federal League matchups, including a matchup of Jackson and GlenOak that is already set because both teams received first-round byes.

Whichever team emerges from the North Canton district later this month will have earned its place at the Civic Center, perhaps not having won its own league, but having emerged victorious over its six league rivals when it matters most.

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936 or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com.
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB