JACKSON TWP. Can you withstand the heat?
That question is both literal and metaphorical for the Jackson girls lacrosse team as the postseason nears. On one hand, the weather is (finally) warming up and with the increased heat comes a potentially taxing situation for a squad with a roster that skews on the small side for a top Division I team.
On the other hand, the Polar Bears are likely to face some intensely hot competition in the coming weeks and if they get back to the state tournament again, the mercury will only rise further.
Head coach John Kroah knows that the combination of higher temperatures and higher standards of competition could be potent.
"That’s where we got caught last year. In June with the (state) championship game, we just couldn’t stay with Upper Arlington and their athleticism, conditioning and their depth and they knew that," Kroah said. "That’s exactly what (Upper Arlington head coach) Wendy (Pinta) was doing to us, pressuring us all over the field because she knew they had that edge."
Kroah noted that because of that game and the lessons learned from it, he and his staff put a premium on conditioning more than they ever had before as the team wound its way through the offseason. Kroah, owner of 440 Performance in Green, wanted to make sure his players were able to go as hard as possible for as long as possible even if the temperature spiked above 80 degrees in the tournament.
However, going hard for an entire game can take its toll on players and that’s where Jackson’s smaller roster could come into play.
"That’s been our thing this year, even though we have 12 seniors, or roster only goes about 14 or 15 deep," Kroah said. "From a depth standpoint, we’re not very deep."
In past years, the veteran coach observed, there were plenty of All-Americans on the roster. This year, it’s been more of a collective effort and without one specific player who dominates the attack, the onus has been on using the wealth of big-game experience among the juniors and seniors on the roster as a way to elevate the whole squad.
One of the struggles this season has been staying focused even against teams that, on paper, the Polar Bears should be able to defeat handily.
"That’s a struggle no matter sport you’re playing or coaching," Kroah said. "This year, we’ve had those ebbs and flows in games that, on paper, we should be winning by sizable margin. We’ve tried to stress that and make sure the players are aware of what’s happening. There’s been some of those timeouts called to remind them of that, or doing it at halftime and after games. The tournament is one and done and any given day you can get caught."
The result to this point has been an 11-2 record that isn’t as sparkling as in recent seasons, but has come against a schedule stocked with elite teams from Ohio and beyond. That challenging slate has made for a tougher-than-normal regular season and yet, Jackson seems headed for a top tournament seed once again.
The early rounds of the tournament could bring another round of those aforementioned challenges of staying on point against teams with losing records.
"That’s what ends up happening the way bracket sets up. Even if you’re the top seed it’s what coaches want to do and it’s up to coaches to place themselves on the bracket once tournament seeds," Kroah said. "A lot of times they want stay away from higher-seeded teams so they can hopefully have a longer tournament run."
One development that could bolster the Polar Bears entering the postseason is the return of two players who have been out with injuries. Cameron Dingler and Olivia Kroah, the coach’s daughter, have both missed games and recently were cleared to get back on the field. Dingler was dealing with the effects of a concussion, while Olivia Kroah was out the past three months following surgery for a foot injury.
Adding two experienced players to the mix will increase depth at an opportune time, but only once they get into the late-May tournament games against better teams will the Polar Bears truly know if they can hold up well enough to vie for their first state title.
Nine months of work and wondering are about to coming to a tipping point and against this kind of heat, air conditioning and ice packs won’t be much use.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB