JACKSON TWP. They've been here before, but haven't broken through yet.
The question facing the Jackson Polar Bears this week – with their season on the line – is if and how this time will be different.
"This is our third appearance in playoffs in the last four years and our seniors this year were sophomores (in Jackson's last playoff appearance) and a couple of them played in 2017," fifth-year head coach Tim Budd said. "At this point, winning a playoff game is the next step ... breaking through and winning one."
Budd has seen two previous Jackson teams get to the postseason but run into premier, powerhouse programs such as Cleveland St Ignatius and Euclid and get overwhelmed. Ironically, it's the Panthers who await Jackson again this postseason.
What could be different this time around is the type of Jackson team that enters the postseason. Most of Budd's teams in his five seasons at the helm have been stronger on offense than on defense and often have been led by talented, veteran quarterbacks with several seasons of varsity experience under their belts.
This year's Jackson offense has had its moments and turned in some big plays in both the passing and running games, but overall it's been the defense that has defined the campaign and on both sides of the ball, there has been a physicality that has been on display since Week 1.
Whether that physicality and toughness will turn the tide in the Polar Bears' favor Friday night on the road is a question that can't be definitively answered prior to kickoff, but Budd is eager to see how it plays out.
"I guess you don't know until you go and play the game, but playing Euclid, we're facing a team haven't seen in a couple of years, so we really have to wait to see if we're equipped to play them," Budd said. "I hope our physical play will help us ... last time (in 2017) we had an offense that scored a lot of points but we struggled on defense."
In that matchup, an early pick six by the Euclid defense put Jackson in a hole in the early going and the Polar Bears could never get back to level in a 49-29 defeat. The previous season, St. Ignatius, did something similar and ran away for a 35-0 win to end Jackson's campaign.
Avoiding an early deficit is one of the first entries on the agenda this week and along with a gritty, hard-nosed defense, the hope is for the running game to control the clock, shorten the game and perhaps to set the table for a big play in the passing game by senior receiver Jake Ryan and his fellow pass catchers. Ryan has 610 yards and nine touchdown catches this season and figures to be a focal point for the Euclid defense
Knowing how they'll match up with Euclid is a question mark, but the Polar Bears don't have to wonder what it takes to go toe to toe with playoff-caliber teams. They've faced three of them so far, defeating Perry and losing to Mayfield and Canton McKinley.
Those games each provided valuable lessons from which Jackson hopes to learn. "Starting with mayfield we learned valuable lesson of how if we don't come to play and be physical, we are going to get beat and probably beat bad," Budd said of a 26-10 defeat to the Wildcats in Week 2. "Against McKinley, we did come to play but we didn't execute well. We couldn't get the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line and we turned it over."
Those are the only two losses on the ledger for Jackson and to avoid a third, it will be vital to apply those lessons and execute based on the knowledge they've brought. There is one other factor at play and that stems to the mental approach to making the playoffs and how players feel about being there.
Given that the first of Budd's Jackson teams to reach the postseason broke a decade-plus drought for the program, it's understandable that there may have been a sense of excitement just to reach the playoffs. That feeling may have lingered for the second postseason berth, but if practice this week as a sign of how that mindset has evolved, then the forecast has improved.
"The biggest thing they've shown is an excitement to go play the game ... our other two appearances I felt like on some level we were happy to be there, but these guys business have shown a business-like attitude, with some of them having been through it and understanding what it takes," Budd said.
Following the McKinley loss, Jackson hovered on the fringes of the Division I, Region 1 playoff race. They needed at least two more wins in their final three games and likely all three to clinch a playoff berth, so in a sense, the playoffs began a month ago for the Polar Bears. They responded by routing GlenOak and Green, then surviving arch rival Hoover in the latest thriller between the two sides in what Budd called "one of the best rivalries in Stark County.
He and Hoover head coach Brian Baum took over their respective programs the same year and have staged memorable battles on an annual basis since then and this year was no different. Jackson held off a last-minute Hoover charge and dashed their rival's playoff hopes in the process while also punching their own playoff ticket at the same time.
Now that they're about the cash in that ticket and take their chances in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, it's nearly time to find out whether that ticket is a winner and whether their season has another game or more to go.