JACKSON TWP.  The mission for the Jackson boys basketball team on its annual holiday trip to Florida was twofold: get back on track and have fun doing so.

After suffering their first loss of the season, the Polar Bears hopped a flight for sunny Orlando and participated in the KSA Orlando Holiday Tournament. Going to Florida just before or after Christmas has become a tradition for the team and, although they shifted from playing in a tournament hosted at Disney World to one staged at Universal Studios this year, the result was the same.

“After losing a tough one at Perry, we had to get back on track and a trip like that can help the team refocus and you get good team bonding and play some good teams,” veteran head coach Tim Debevec said. “Beginning the season going 9-1 is good and our second thing to focus on is winning the league and the third part is the tournament.”

At the KSA Orlando Holiday Tournament, Jackson got an early feel for how it would fare in the postseason, playing in a tournament bracket against several solid opponents. The result was, as it has been on most of Jackson’s previous trips to holiday tournaments in recent years, three wins in three games against three opponents from different states.

The final game, a 64-56 triumph over Central Hunterdon (N.J.) saw Sean Reed sink six 3-pointers en route to 23 points and given the red-hot long-distance shooting of guard Trent Jones, the Polar Bears appear to have the ability to swing the balance of power in games from beyond the arc. That kind of shooting should also open things up on the interior and create better spacing.

Although the stakes aren’t as high at such events as they are back home in Ohio once the postseason rolls around, getting to play in a tournament allowed Jackson a chance to get back on a winning path after dropping a tough Federal League loss to Perry and end 2018 in style.

“It was a good trip and the weather was really nice,” Debevec said. “We played a couple of teams with different styles down there … we played a team that likes to slow it down and a team that likes to get up and down and being in the upper bracket down there, we faced quality teams and had to find ways to close out games … find ways to win. We had some guys who stepped up and guys off the bench who played well.”

Getting bench contributions was even more important because one of the team’s regulars, Will Hyde, sat out one game of the tournament and Jake Byers stepped in and started for Hyde, doing a solid job of giving the team energy and effort on the interior.

According to Debevec, the team’s rotation at present can be anywhere from nine to 11 players depending on the game and past seasons have shown the value of bench depth when the latter stages of the season arrive. Additionally, the junior varsity team has gotten off to an undefeated start to its season, showing that there is talent on its way to the varsity level as the underclassmen in the program wait on their chance to shine.

Given that the Polar Bears tend to play a more up-tempo style, having more players able to be part of the process is vital. In Florida, they played three close games that all provided chances to learn about closing out opponents with a thin margin for error.

All three wins came by eight points or fewer and two came by a combined four points, showing the sort of closer’s mindset that should be very useful in pursuit of yet another league title. Given that no team made it through the first round of league play undefeated, the race remains wide open.

Green has been strong behind senior guard Kaleb Martin and while Canton McKinley has three league losses, the latest dramatic tilt between the Bulldogs and Polar Bears last week proved that McKinley is still a dangerous team. Jackson won the game on a last-second 3-pointer following a non-call by the officials on what may have been a traveling violation, keeping the Polar Bears in the driver’s seat in the league race.

In that moment, Debevec and his team could have used some of the relaxed, sunny day vibes they soaked in during their time in Florida.

“The guys got a chance to go to Cabana Bay, Adventure Island, Universal Studious City Walk … we got passes and were able to visit those parks,” Debevec said. “The weather was in the low 80s and there was a lazy river by the pool where we got to hang out and spend time as a group.”

There were meals at Hard Rock Cafe, breakfast with the Grinch from “The Grinch Whole Stole Christmas” and a night of pizza and wings that included the families of players, as many of them made the trip as well. Debevec credited the team’s booster club with raising the funds to make such a trip happen and while everyone kept busy with games and seeing the sights, it still proved to be a relaxing venture.

The remainder of the season likely won’t be anything like floating down the lazy river on a sunny day in Florida, but in an ideal world, the Polar Bears will be able to draw on the chemistry and camaraderie they built during the trip, combine that with the winning mojo from their three Sunshine State victories and translate all of that into a winning mix that will carry them to a league title and a deep run into the state tournament in a few weeks.

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936

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