JACKSON TWP.  This summer has been about laying the foundation for Hayden Junker.

The Jackson senior two-way standout has been working to get ready for his final year of high school sports while also making a decision on his football future beyond this next year.

As of late last month, he accomplished the latter. Now, he’s putting the finishing touches on the former. As July wound down, Junker chose a scholarship offer from Kent State over one from Army, electing to stay close to home for the next four years.

"I really do feel great about it," Junker said of having his college decision settled. "It just feels so relieving to get that monkey off my shoulders and to be ready to go for my senior season and to be able to focus helping Jackson win."

Junker admitted that being 45 minutes from home was a huge part of the draw and even though Kent State is in a downturn in its program, one that led to the firing of former head coach Paul Haynes at the end of last season, he likes what new head coach Sean Lewis and his staff are doing with the program so far.

His grandfather is a former coach at Kent State and that’s another part of the draw, as is the fact that some of his Jackson coaches are alums of the university and can go back to games there while also seeing him play.

Those connections have played a big role in Junker’s life and football career so far, so being able to keep them going in the next few years means a lot to him.

"I love that fact that it’s so close to home. So many people have invested in me and made me love the game of football and they can come see me play," Junker said.

As for preparations for the coming high school football season continue, the pace is quickening and time is becoming an increasingly precious commodity. On an individual level, Junker has been attacking his own goals as well as those of the team, although in truth, the two largely go hand in hand.

"I really do think I’ve hit most of those marks. I’ve been trying to get quicker with my speed rush off the edge and I’ve lost some weight and tried to muscle it up a bit so I can be the lightest and quickest I possibly can," Junker said. "Team-wise, I want to be a bigger leader. ... Last year, I was chosen as a captain, but it’s a lot different being a captain as a senior and trying to hold everyone accountable."

The good news for Junker’s slimming down and trying to be more lean is that it fits nicely with his projected role at Kent State. Coaches there have told him they intend to use him at tight end, one of two positions he plays at Jackson. He doesn’t mind the idea of giving up his role as a defensive lineman and pass rusher in order to focus on catching passes.

As the season nears, he and his teammates seem to largely be on the same page when it comes to their outlook for the coming campaign. There have been some conversations about what they hope to accomplish, but according to Junker, much of what they think doesn’t need to be said because it’s been perched in front of them the past two seasons.

Both of those seasons have included playoff appearances, the latter also including a share of the program’s first Federal League title in more than a decade, but what they haven’t included is a playoff win. That, Junker says, is what he and the rest of the team are intent on changing.

"We’ve talked about it definitely some because of how we’ve made the playoffs the last two years, but I also think we’re on same page without talking on the goal to win a playoff game, because I think Jackson has only won one playoff game in its history."

To achieve that goal will take hard work, good health, continued improvement and toughness among other qualities, and as Junker pointed out, the Polar Bears will not always be the fastest, biggest or most athletic team on the field.

That means toughness on both collective and individual levels is a must, beginning with the season opener in two weeks. The return of games is a welcome one and helps mitigate the palpable disappointment most students have when the last days of summer tick away and their days go from relaxing, vacations and fun with friends to a return to the classroom.

"It’s almost exciting," Junker said of school starting up again. "Right now, we’re just in football grind mode, but with school starting, that means Friday nights and games coming soon too. I love summer, but once school comes around, getting to play games on Friday nights is awesome."

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