JACKSON TWP. Even for programs that have racked up a trophy case full of shiny awards for league and postseason success, hoisting another trophy come October tends not to lose its thrill.
Few Northeast Ohio teams have kept a chokehold on their respective league the way the Jackson Polar Bears have in girls soccer over the past decade plus and they've added district and regional trophies to their haul in several seasons during that run. Still, their 2-1 Niles Division I district title win over Boardman last week was one to celebrate and remember.
"They were pretty exited ... I think they understand that we were able to move the ball around and create some good opportunities," Jackson head coach Frank Gagliardi said. "Still, it was dangerous game being 1-0 and to give up kind of a soft PK in the last 30 seconds or so was tough. Fortunately the girls responded with a good mentality. We showed good strength and created opportunities down around the goal (in overtime)."
Gagliardi credited the Spartans with continuing to battle until the end, showing why they earned the second seed in a loaded district. In their two postseason games leading up to the district final, the Polar Bears blanked Louisville and Austintown Fitch by a combined score of 6-0, but the Boardman game was a steeper challenge.
The Spartans were able to keep the Jackson offense in check more than the Leopards and Falcons, but senior Izzy Arnold put her team ahead early win a key goal, a lead that looked like it would hold up until the final 28 seconds of the game, when Boardman's Hope Buford knotted the game up on a penalty kick.
When the game headed to extra time, the Polar Bears were able to draw on the big-match experience of several of their players and find a way to drive home one more goal to close out the game. One of those veterans, Arnold, scored on a penalty kick in overtime to win the game and second the Jackson sideline into a frenzy of celebration.
It was the second goal of the night for the senior, who led the team in scoring in the sectional and district round to send the Polar Bears on to a regional semifinal matchup against Medina. The Bees were seventh in the final state poll of the season, while Jackson was one spot behind in eighth.
"I'd like to believe that's (the way the Polar Bears responded in overtime) who we really are ... our girls have put in the time and done the extra work, so it's a mentality they've built and a belief they have in themselves," Gagliardi said. "A couple of girls have been there (in big games) before and being through that before, they've been helping mentor the younger girls."
The season itself has been full of tests for Jackson, which rose to 15-2-2 with the win over Boardman and captured yet another Federal League title this season. So far, their tournament run has seen relatively good fall weather, but Gagliardi noted the effect that unpredictable fall weather can have on games at this point in the season and he didn't have to look far for an example.
"We don't know how Federal League is going to go and who's going to be the biggest competition, so winning the league is important and winning a district championship is great for us ... at this point of the season, we're just enjoying every day we get to get together, one day at a time," Gagliardi said. "Our boys team unfortunately had bad weather and it really changes the complexion of the game ... it affects how far you can play a ball and how you collect and move the ball."
The aforementioned weather-affected game saw Jackson's boys team lose 2-1 to Hoover in a shootout to end a game that was definitely impacted by precipitation and wind. Gagliardi knows that storms and forecasts can shift on nature's whim and could create similar problems for his team, but he's seen them weather a storm of a different kind already this postseason and believes the Polar Bears can respond similarly well to whatever comes their way next.