JACKSON TWP.  It may sound familiar, but the story is anything but a repeat for the Jackson girls basketball team.

A talented freshman helps the Polar Bears to a strong start to the season and opens eyes along the way by playing well and helping her team compete in a stacked Federal League. However, veteran head coach Anthony Butch is the first to point out that this isn’t 2014 all over again.

This year’s talented freshman is forward Emma Dretke, a 5-foot-11 newcomer who had her best game of the season in the Polar Bears’ biggest setting to date, a win over state-ranked Shaker Heights Laurel. With 24 points, Dretke showed that she is poised to be a significant contributor for a team that has started the year 8-3.

After losing a large, talented senior class that included the program’s all-time leading scorer, Taylor Mikesell, much of the chatter about the program entering the year was about the supposedly inevitable down year in store for the Polar Bears.

“There was definitely a lot of chirping before the season and people saying that we were going to have a rough season and maybe win only five or six games,” Butch said. “We haven’t spoken a whole lot out loud about it, but I’m sure the girls knew that the image of this team coming in was that it would be a rebuilding year or that we would have a down year.”

Some of that chatter centered on the seniors who graduated from last year and the process of replacing them, but it also hinged on the Federal League itself, which has the reigning Ohio Ms. Basketball in McKinley senior Kierstan Bell and perennially strong programs such as Hoover, Green and GlenOak.

Knowing that the league slate would be as taxing as usual, many figured a Jackson team with a lot of new faces in new roles would have its ups and downs and may not be able to keep up its winning pace of recent seasons.

“Our league is as brutal as ever with GlenOak and McKinley probably two of top five teams in the state, but that’s just life living in the federal league,” Butch said. “Being 8-3 and having the turnover we had with the kids we lost, to be 8-3 is great and it speaks to the kids we have and how hard they work.”

The three losses have all come in league play, with a close call against Hoover arguably the most difficult of the three to digest. Wins over Lake and Perry have Jackson at 2-3 in league play with Green the only league foe the Polar Bears have yet to play. In between now and Feb. 2, Jackson will play its final seven league games before wrapping up the regular season with non-league tilts against Revere and Twinsburg.

Butch cited three main aspects of this year’s team as the reason for the winning record through the first 11 games of the season: unselfishness, being coachable and hard work.

The fifth-year head coach isn’t sure he’s seen those three qualities at as high of a level as he sees in this year’s team and with both upperclassmen and new faces combining to help the team win games, Jackson enters the new year on pace to match its win total for the past few seasons.

Of course, staying on that pace with games against McKinley and GlenOak ahead won’t be easy, but the Laurel win is proof that these Polar Bears can battle with top teams and stand their ground. However, in the wake of the Laurel win and Dretke’s big game, Butch is quick to pump the brakes on anyone who would try to tie she and Mikesell together based simply on the fact that they have both had big games as freshmen on the varsity level.

“It’s the nature of having Taylor just graduated and Emma coming in, but they’re totally different types of player and it’s not fair to either of them, so I definitely wouldn’t want to do that,” Butch said.

The one link he doesn’t mind making is that Dretke and many current players in the program have taken up is the work ethic they saw from Mikesell and other veterans who were part of the second regional final run in the past four years.

“Emma is someone who is opening eyes not just in program but with college coaches too I think,” Butch said. “With her,  the biggest thing is her composure. She never gets rattled in big moments and always maintains composure. She shoots ball well for her size and she’s in the gym all the time shooting before after practice, even on her off days, she lives in the gym and she is continuing that legacy that Taylor helped establish.”

On some level, Butch admitted, he too is pleasantly surprised with how well the team has played through the first 11 games. At the halfway mark of the regular season eight wins not only puts Jackson on track for a winning record, but has them thinking big when it comes to what they’re capable of this season.

“We are ahead of where I thought we’d be through 11 games,” Butch said. “I’m proud of the kids, the whole team, my assistant coaches … everything we did to revamp offense, revamp defense and revamp everything has carried over and I couldn’t be more proud of where we are going into 2019.”

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936

Or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com

On Twitter: @aharrisBURB