JACKSON TWP. Fresh off testing themselves against Stark County's best, the Jackson Polar Bears are eager to tackle the rest of the cross country season.
A first-place finish by the girls team and a second-place finish by the boys team - behind only a talented Louisville squad - has veteran head coach Kevin Walsh confident that more good things are ahead for his teams.
"We're just coming off a great performance at the Stark County meet," Walsh said. "It's a great stepping stone into the postseason part of our season and we're excited about where we're at."
As has been the case in recent years, the boys and girls teams find themselves in different places in terms of experience and roster composition. The girls entered the season with a more established pecking order and a bit more overall experience at the varsity level, while the boys lost a few more key seniors to graduation and have been sorting out their lineup as the season has gone on.
The top three runners for the girls teams, both all season long and at the Stark County meet, were sophomores Sofia Istnick and Allie Hartnett and freshman Kailey Zagst, who were second, third and fifth against Stark County's best and within one minute of each other at the meet.
However, the runners behind them in the lineup have also contributed and it's the entire group, according to Walsh, that makes the Polar Bears a threat for a return trip to the state meet this season.
"Sofia, Allie and Kailey up font make us an elite team, but (junior) Allyson Bailey, (senior) Libby Dillon and (junior) Lauren Stayer have contributed in those four, five and six spots," Walsh said.
That secondary trio, along with freshman Claire Seeley, and the Polar Bears' top three all finished in the top 26 out of 131 runners at the Stark County Championships and that effort put Jackson well clear of the field in a runaway win, with second-place Minerva 59 points back with a team score of 108.
It was a dominant effort that has Jackson thinking of a long postseason run, perhaps all the way to Columbus. For the boys team to match that type of run and reach Columbus for the sixth straight year, it will take more of the sort of growth the Polar Bears have exhibited from the start of the preseason until now.
Five sophomores, one junior and one senior populated the top seven for Jackson at the Stark County Championships, with sophomore Alex Zuckett leading the way with a time of 16:35.6, good for eighth place individually. The lone senior in the lineup, Alex Regas, wasn't far behind in 19th place, crossing the finish line in 17:13.27, one place and 1.15 seconds ahead of teammate Lucas Immel.
"We went into knowing Louisville was the team to beat and we were able to reach that number two position," Walsh said. "As the season goes, we want to put more pressure on those other top teams."
Walsh knows the Federal League championship meet will be a great test of what the boys team can do, with Hoover (third at the county meet), GlenOak (fourth) and Lake (fifth) all on hand, along with the league's Summit County member, Green.
What the hopes will allow his team to elbow its way past the rest of the league and add to its run of dominance in recent seasons is the fact that there isn't much of a drop-off between the first and seventh runners in the lineup.
Sophomore Ryan Kelley was 34th at the county meet, but just 57.19 seconds behind Zuckett as the Polar Bears succeeded in running as a pack at GlenOak High School's cross country course.
The league and postseason success Jackson has enjoyed in recent seasons has set a high standard and left each successive class with strong motivation to not be the one to let it drop.
"(The Stark County meet) is a good measuring stick where you're at and lets our runners know their hard work is paying off," Walsh said. "Especially on the boys' side, we've made it to the state meet the last five years in a row and this year, our group of seniors is passing down to the younger guys on team what it takes to get down there."
Dillon is the only senior in the starting lineup for the girls, but Walsh noted that Istnick and Hartnett got their state meet experience last season and because of the squad's overall young slant, they have banded together and run as one much of the the time. Zagst and Sealey have helped, Walsh said, by earning their chances to run through significant improvement this season.
What Istnick and Hartnett have experienced is somewhat similar to what Zuckett has faced for the boys team. He was a freshman on a senior-led team last season, but with that senior class gone and a lot of new faces in the lineup this fall, he's seen his role change and has had to learn how to lead more. If the results of the past few weeks are any indication, all of those runners have learned quite a bit and are poised to put their newfound knowledge to use in the most pressure-packed portion of the season.