JACKSON TWP. A pack of Polar Bears will descend on the Boardman cross country course this weekend and each of them is happy to have company.
Both the Jackson boys and girls cross country teams advanced through the Canton Division I district meet and qualify for the regional meet in Boardman and even though the two teams took different paths to advance, veteran head coach Kevin Walsh said the squads are ready to attack the challenge in front of them.
"It's a huge advantage to be running with the team, especially with having teammates there at the starting line and even on the course when you're used to seeing and running with the same people," Walsh said.
The girls team roared through the district meet after entering as one of the favorites, adding another trophy to their trophy case with their top three runners all placing in the top eight in a loaded field. Sophomores Sofia Istnick was second with a time of 18:27.2, just a little more than 11 seconds behind district champion Savanna Richards of Lake.
Teammate Allie Hartnett was third at 19:01.4 and freshman Kailey Zagst took eighth place with a time of 19:33.3. Three more Jackson runners – junior Allyson Bailey, senior Libby Dillon and freshman Claire Seeley – were 15th, 19th and 26th overall, showcasing Jackson's depth and suggesting they have a chance to contend for the top spot at regionals as well.
"For the girls, the goal was to win the district championship. We were able to put our three up front like all year and keep our four and five runners close to the front, so we knew we would have a shot at it," Walsh said. "Our four and five runners would have advanced as individuals (if the team hadn't advanced)."
The challenge was a bit steeper for the boys team, which faced a field that included both the Stark County champion for this season in Louisville and the reigning district individual champion, Lake junior Nathan Moore.
Against that backdrop, the Polar Bears needed their entire lineup to run well and the quintet of Alex Zuckett, Jason Freisen, Carson Reed, Lucas Immel and Ryan Kelley did just that, tallying a score of 142 to claim the fifth and final qualifying spot for regionals and edge out Federal League rival Perry by just three points.
"It was a combination of joy and also relief," Walsh said of the team's reaction to the results. "We knew going in that the Federal League is very deep and then you add Louisville, so we had to run a very strong race to advance."
Zuckett, who placed fifth in a time of 16:14.2, was up front from the start and less than 15 seconds behind Moore, who was the only runner at the meet to break the 16-minute barrier. But Walsh pointed to the finishes of the squad's other runners, who made up quite a bit of ground in the race's closing stretch, as what pushed the Polar Bears over the top and helped them advance.
"Carson Reed and Jason Freisen both finished extremely well and that was huge," Walsh said. "Alex Zuckett had a strong race up front and Ryan Kelly and Lucas also were solid."
The boys team boasts four sophomores and a junior and with the girls team also skewing young, one might think they'd be short on experience heading to regionals, but Walsh noted that both sides have a large contingent of runners who have regional and even state meet experience, suggesting the stage shouldn't be too big for them in Boardman.
That will most come into play, the veteran coach believes, in the first mile or so of the race, when 24 teams crowd the course and there simply isn't a lot of room to run. Younger runners can sometimes get rattled when they're surrounded by a large pack and get jostled elbowed and maybe even have their toes stepped on in the pack as everyone tries to find space.
Add in having run at the Boardman Invitational earlier this year and there promises to be a lot of familiarity and reasons for comfort for the Polar Bears. Advance again is the mission and even though the girls team's top three runners and the boys team's lead runner were near the front of the pack at districts and could have visions of taking the top spot at regionals, Walsh insists that the two teams are on a collective mission, with individual glory taking a back seat.
"We've definitely been talking all year about team, team, team," Walsh said. "But for the girls, they're also looking at as, if all three of our individuals run well enough to be state qualifiers on their own, then it's going to be really tough as a team not to make it. Most of all, the girls and the boys want the team to qualify for the state meet."