JACKSON TWP. Height has been a key asset for the Jackson boys basketball team in its recent run of success that includes a pair of state titles in the last decade.
It won’t be the core piece of whatever success the Polar Bears enjoy this season simply because there isn’t nearly as much of it. A program that has enjoyed a surplus of players 6-foot-5 or taller over the last decade isn’t quite as tall this season, meaning veteran head coach Tim Debevec and his staff figure to have a squad that needs other assets and qualities to shine in order to win games.
"We should be physically strong, but at the end of the day, you have to put the ball in the hoop to win games," Debevec said. "We do have a couple of guys we feel can really score and physically, guys like Hayden Junker, Will Hyde and Spencer Stanton are strong, but Will is our biggest guy at 6-foot-4, Junker is 6-foot-3 and Reed is 6-foot-2, so this will be one of the smallest teams we’ve had since I’ve been here."
Graduation took away the last players who had a major role in the team’s 2017 state title and also last season’s two leading scorers, so the Jackson team that takes the court on Dec. 1 in the Polar Bears’ home opener against Louisville will give fans plenty of reason to reach for their game program in order to familiarize themselves with the new players making the jump either from reserves who didn’t play major minutes last season or junior varsity players from one year ago transitioning to the varsity roster.
Senior guard Anthony Mazzeo is one of the faces fans will recognize because he’s been on the court for the Polar Bears alongside some of the now-graduated standouts who powered the past couple of campaigns. Add in players such as Jake Byers, Trent Jones, Jake Ryan and others and there is no shortage of players eager for their chance to step in and contribute to the most successful program in Stark County in the past decade.
Debevec knows that given his team’s recent success and status at the top of the Federal League for most of his tenure, there are plenty of folks outside the program who look on and say that this will be the year Jackson falls off the pace a bit and its rivals, such as Canton McKinley, Lake and others pass them by.
"We’re competitive and we’re used to wining, so even though a lot of people think we’re going to be down, I told our kids that we’re not going to change expectations," Debevec said. "We’re going to scrimmage the same teams, play the same schedule with top teams like Mentor, Cleveland Heights …. playing against top 10 teams in big games."
A change in personnel isn’t likely to spur a major change in approach on the court, according to Debevec. The plan is to keep the same offensive and defensive schemes and work new players into that system, which is the way the veteran coach has handled things in his 14 years with the program.
He wants to see his players work as a cohesive group that presses and looks to push the tempo, coming at opponents in waves and doing what they can to further the winning tradition that includes 15 league and nine district titles in the past three decades. Some of the players sliding into bigger roles were sophomores who got an up-close view of the 2017 state title and while they didn’t play varsity minutes during that season, the hope is that they can draw on what they saw and learned during that magical campaign.
Reed and Hyde gained starting experience last season and Stanton and Junker were the first two players off the bench last season and along with Mazzeo, they figure to garner a lot of minutes in the early going. There will once again be a Florida trip over winter break, albeit to a slightly different Sunshine State tournament than in past seasons.
Instead of staying and playing at a tournament based at Disney World, the Polar Bears will be at Universal’s Adventure Island for a tournament put on by the same organizer, simply in a different part of the Orlando area. That trip will see the team fly out the day after Christmas and return Dec. 31 after three days of games and a few days of fun in the sun.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB