JACKSON TWP. Finding the most consistent athletic program at Jackson High School over the past decade isn’t an easy task.
Multiple programs on both the boys’ and girls’ sides could make the case that they can claim that title, but the cross country program undoubtedly finds itself squarely in that mix.
With a fistful of league titles and state championship appearances, the cross country program has stayed on track largely to the tradition it has built, with strong class after strong class rising up through the ranks.
This year, the Polar Bears have gotten contributions from several underclassmen who have stepped up to add depth and talent to the mix alongside veterans such as Evan Akers and Jon Uhl.
"Obviously it definitely helps with team depth. We had a lot of quality runners coming back, but we also have outstanding group of freshmen and sophomores who have improved drastically," veteran head coach Kevin Walsh said.
At the Stark County Championships, Akers and Uhl finished fourth and seventh, and freshman Alex Zuckett took sixth to propel Jackson to the top of the standings. Freshman Lucas Immel also contributed with a 21st-place result that saw Jackson powered by four seniors and two freshmen.
"After the Stark County meet, we’re thrilled where we’re at," Walsh said. "It was a big win for the program."
As good as the boys team was in the meet, the girls team was just as good, if not better. Led by the trio of freshmen Sofia Istnick and Allie Hartnett and sophomore Allyson Bailey, who ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively, the Polar Bears easily outpaced the field.
Add in sophomore Lauren Stayer, who was 13th at the meet, and four underclassmen put Jackson 53 points clear of second-lace Louisville.
That sort of finish, which saw junior Libby Dillon and seniors Sarah Struck and Michaela Huffman round out Jackson’s seven-person unit, bodes well not just for this year, but coming seasons.
"Both teams have a solid pack that should help in postseason and we have solid front runners as well," Walsh said. "Sofia and Allie are two freshmen who have run great all year with confidence and are getting faster."
With Bailey, Istnick and Hartnett improving, Walsh sees the potential for Jackson to rise from a good team to one capable of doing damage in the postseason.
As the year wears on, another element at play is - well, the elements. Early on, meets are contested in hot, muggy conditions that see hydration and fatigue from the heat as factors in races. Later in the year, the weather cools off and hot, humid conditions give way to erratic weather than is often chilly, damp and muddy.
Winning in those conditions requires a different approach and mindset than early-season races.
"We talk about preparation and focusing on the little things," Walsh said. "Those wet, muddy conditions where the course starts to fall apart bit, we want to run our pace and run our race. In those conditions, we want to run our race and not run someone else’s race. It’s more about the mental part, so you have to block out the elements."
The sectional meet this season is back at GlenOak, having moved there after being held at Malone University for years. Walsh noted that his runners seem to enjoy the GlenOak course because they know it will, having run there in the GlenOak Invitational.
The pressure and intensity are sure to be higher this time around, but with the team’s younger runners have gained a season full of experience and learned how to compete better on the varsity level, it should be a different - and improved - Jackson team that takes to the course this time around. Given that those other Jackson athletic programs that have been equally consistent and successful in recent years are always pushing to improve in the same way, it’s fair to say that cross country is eager to show that it can continue to get the job done.
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