JACKSON TWP. With a chance to claim their first Federal League title since 2012, the Jackson Polar Bears made it count.
Well, technically the team made head coach Scott Stayer count, but that’s just smart business when your coach is also a math teacher. Stayer was asked by some of his athletes about how close they were to the title at the league championship meet after already claiming the regular-season title with a 6-0 dual meet mark.
“They were really excited … they get the math and they know that I teach math, so they were asking me as the 3,200 came up, ‘How many points do we need to clinch?’ and I told them, we need X number of points,” Stayer said. “We knew who was running the 3,200 for us, so we knew we were good.”
Good was an understatement; junior Nick Regas and senior Sam Craig finished second and third in the event, more than providing the 10-plus-point buffer Jackson needed over second-place Canton McKinley going into the final event of the meet, the 1,600 relay.
The Polar Bears’ relay group still ran a solid race, placing fourth, but the celebration at Hoover’s Memorial Stadium was already well underway by the time sophomore Preston Johnson crossed the finish line for the fourth leg of the relay. The squad posed for a celebratory photo on the turf - and within a winning long jump of the Vikings’ logo - of their biggest rival, smiling and holding up their index fingers to signify their place in the standings.
It was a win that coaches and athletes knew was possible going into the meet, but it was far from a certainty given the depth and speed of McKinley.
“Going into meet, mathematically I knew it would tough to beat McKinley, but I held up our team’s times in our meeting the day before the meet and told our guys, if we can run our best, we can do this … and they went out and went after it,” Stayer said.
The veteran coach noted that some athletes who normally do three events competed in four if they were needed and others went from two events to doing three, but the team’s depth remained its best asset over the two days of the meet. It allowed the squad’s relay teams to have fresh legs as needed and with more than 130 athletes on the roster, that depth was a driving force behind a strong regular season.
At the league meet, Jackson placed two competitors in most individual events - with the 400 meters, 300 hurdles, pole vault and high jump the exceptions - and those points piled up quickly. The results reinforced the message the team received all year from coaches that their depth would give them a chance to succeed if they put in the necessary work to reach their goals.
Stayer noted that distance coach Kevin Walsh and throws coach Matt Connelly each had their respective groups of athletes fully ready for the meet and said that with the distance group that has largely been cultivated in both cross country in the fall and track in the spring, Jackson could put two good runners in the 1,600 and two different, yet equally capable competitors in the 3,200.
Some schools don’t have the depth to put different runners in the two events and while those runners may be good, having to run the two longest races at any meet is a tall task.
The league meet was also a last hurrah for the team in a sense, as it was the final time the whole squad would be together in a team setting. The postseason is a more separated setting and as it goes on, some athletes from a team advance while others see their seasons end at the district level.
That made it a special occasion, especially for the seniors on the roster.
“People always say winning solves a lot of things and after the past two seasons we’ve had, I tend to agree with that,” Stayer said. “When they’re doing well, kids don’t complain if you ask them to switch events or work a little harder.”
The hard work continued to pay off at the district meet, also held at Hoover, as multiple Jackson competitors delivered strong events and advance. Marcus Rucker had a leap of more than 22 feet in the long jump, the 3,200 relay made it to regionals and the Polar Bears also advanced athletes in the discus and pole vault, all on the first day of the meet.
It’s still about making chances count, no matter what the stage or how near the season is to its end.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB