JACKSON TWP. While Jackson girls soccer has made a habit of stockpiling league and tournament trophies in recent years, the Polar Bears have also been acutely aware of the changing climate around them when it comes to their Federal League competition.
Veteran head coach Frank Gagliardi has seen the overall level of competition rise significantly during his two-plus decades on the bench, but last season he noted that the rise has increased of late and said that meant it would be an increasingly harder fight for the Polar Bears to stay on top.
However, their title reign hasn't become extinct just yet, as a recent win over a fast-rising Green team guaranteed Jackson at least a share of the league title, with a win over Perry to close out the league season the last remaining step to take to win the title outright and wrap up another undefeated league season.
"It was a big deal to them and for us to make sure to take care of it," Gagliardi said. "Green has taken a nice step forward this year with their style out play and confidence, so to be get one early in that game was big for us."
At 10-2-2 and 5-0 leading into the Perry game Jackson has done enough not only to stay atop the Federal League, but also to earn the top spot in the Niles Division I district tournament bracket. Even though the brakcet also contains an undefeated Marietta team and a tough Boardman squad, the Polar Bears were voted the top seed and with that comes the requisite extra-large target for every other team in the bracket.
"Most definitely we've got to be on our game because everybody's hungry," Gagliardi said. "There's some bigger fish out there for sure, and we know we've got to keep the right mindset and I think our girls do a good job of respecting every opponent."
With that respect, the Polar Bears possess what Gagliardi described as a growth in poise and composure. Although the roster contains 11 seniors, the group has had to take steps forward when it comes to its mental approach to the game and sticking to that approach in close games and pressure situations.
"The girls have grown a ton as far as composure and we need to carry that through in big moments," Gagliardi said. "Technically we're very sound and tactically our girls know what they want to do, but when it gets fast and furious, you have to stick to that an execute."
He pointed to seniors Izzy Arnold and Kate Bliechrodt as two of the veterans spearheading the attack and described this year's senior class as blending the approaches of the past two senior classes into a style that works for them. While the 2018 senior class was a very athletic group and the 2019 seniors were defined more by their on-field savvy and intellect, the veteran coach sees the current seniors as taking both of those qualities and blending them together.
With the postseason looming and goals increasingly hard to come by as the tournament wears on and the level of competition rises with each game, the back line of the defense looks to be even more important for Jackson with every passing day.
With senior keeper Alyssa Vaccaro anchoring the back line, Jackson feels good about that part of the formation even though the defenders are a young group that has three sophomores playing key roles. Those sophomores, Gagliardi said, feel a good pressure to not let their veteran teammates down and to be consistent and accountable.
With the Polar Bears' first tournament game set for Neitzelt Stadium on Oct. 17 against the winner of the Oct. 14 first-round game between eighth seed New Philadelphia and ninth-seeded Louisville, there will be a five-day respite between the end of the regular season and the start of the tournament. It promises to be a chance to catch their breath, refocus and transition from regular season to postseason and brace for the pressure of the most intense part of the season, when there are more trophies to be chased.
Like the girls team, the boys have won their first five games of the league season, with the regular-season finale against Perry the only thing standing between the Polar Bears and a perfect Federal League record. With a 33-2 scoring edge in their first five league games, the Polar Bears have routed their competition and a 7-0 win over Green was the most recent game in that run of dominance. Only Hoover has been able to hold Jackson to fewer than six goals in a league game this season and with five shutouts already to its credit, the Jackson defense has the team poised for a strong tournament run.
Also similar to the girls team, the boys squad is the top seed in the Niles district and will host the winner of eighth-seeded Alliance and ninth-seeded Warren G. Harding on Oct. 19 at 6 p.m.