JACKSON TWP. For the past few years, Jackson girls tennis’ biggest rival was also its biggest hurdle.
Hoover had sent several consecutive Jackson senior classes off to college without a win over the Vikings, but this year’s edition of the Polar Bears brought that streak to a screeching halt and in the process, claimed the regular-season Federal League title.
A 3-2 win over Hoover on Sept. 6 vaulted Jackson to the top of the league standings and the Polar Bears finished with a perfect 6-0 mark, sending them into last weekend’s league championship meet with enough momentum to capture the overall team title.
“We were very excited to win. Hoover was our biggest match to win because we haven’t beaten them in more than five years,” junior Emily Thomas said. “Winning that match was huge for us, knowing that the Federal League was ours this year.”
The league title holds great meaning for the players as well as head coach Jen Meister. Meister, who played at Jackson and went on to collegiate success at the University of Toledo, returned to coach at her alma mater two years ago. She’s focused on getting back to the winning ways that she was a part of as a player at Jackson and despite having a team with several underclassmen in key positions this season, her team was able to regain its spot atop the league standings.
For Meister, winning a league title as a coach has a very different feeling than it did as a player and according to Meister, might just be bette.
“I feel like it means more now as a coach than as a player,” Meister said. “We were a strong team when I was at Jackson and it (a league title) was something that was accepted every year, something like 17 years running … the longest streak we’ve had. When I took the job, bringing the trophy back was the ultimate goal.”
It was a goal fueled by contributions from across the roster, with Thomas leading the way but players such as junior Megan Reese recording plenty of big wins as well. Reese won the second singles title at the league meet, capturing the title at the Harvard and 25th courts by topping Hoover sophomore Hallie Hunt in straight sets.
With runner-up finishes in third singles, first doubles and second doubles, Jackson finished with 30 points, narrowly edging out Hoover and Green (29 points each) for the championship.
With just three seniors on their roster, the Polar Bears have positioned themselves well for sustained success in the years ahead. With four sophomores and freshmen on the roster, there was a bit of uncertainty entering the season, but it dissipated with each win.
“It’s always in our mind that we’re going to do really well and coming into this year we knew Hoover had lost some good players and they’re a young team, so we were well-matched,” Thomas said. “We also knew Green had their good returning players, but every match was tough.”
Meister attributed the squad’s success to its offseason approach. She knew she had a highly competitive group coming into the season and realized that the atmosphere could push players one of two ways. Either they would drive each other to be the best they could be, or they would believe that they didn’t have a chance to make it with so many strong competitors to battle for playing time.
When she took over the program two years ago, Meister made the decision to include upcoming eighth graders in the offseason, allowing them to take part if they wanted a taste of what high school tennis was like. The benefits, it appears, are already being felt.
“We allowed girls going into eighth grade to come to summer conditioning so they know how hard we work,” Meister said. “The freshmen now, two summers ago saw the hard work, how competitive it was and how hard the girls worked to be as good as they can be.”
Those players have become the next wave of talent for Jackson and according to Thomas, the players have been encouraged by the dedication they see from their head coach. Meister, who balances her coaching time with having a 1-year-old at home, is still very much in the moment when she’s with the team, according to Thomas, and puts her focus on tennis during practices and matches.
“I definitely see how much she cares because I know she has a family, but during the season she puts us first,” Thomas said. “Having a 1 year old and still being able to have practice every day and be with us at every match, we know she cares about us.”
Meister, in turn, praised Thomas for following through on a decision the junior made two years ago, during her freshman season. Thomas wanted to go from a good player to a great one and has spent the past two years chasing that goal. Several members of this year’s team played in an adult doubles league with Meister during the offseason, filling in when subs were needed and building the self-confidence their coach wanted them to have ahead of the season. Playing in the league provided valuable lessons about how tennis isn’t simply about hitting the ball as hard as possible and overpowering foes; strategy, thinking and court intelligence matter as well.
Add it all up and the result is a team with a 10-2 record, 6-0 league mark and both the regular-season and tournament titles for the Federal League. Up next is the postseason, where the Polar Bears will look to clear the next set of hurdles and prove that they’re back and ready to stay on top.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB