JACKSON TWP. The goal five years ago when Anthony Butch took over the girls basketball program at Jackson was long-term success.
For the first four years, it was easy for observers to attribute a lot of the Polar Bears’ success - two regional final appearances, winning records and high seeds in the district tournament bracket - to having perennial All-Ohio selection Taylor Mikesell leading the way, setting records and torching opposing defenses.
But what this season has shown, aside from the fact that the Polar Bears have another rising star in freshman forward Emma Dretke, is that the defense-first approach to the game Butch made a focal point as soon as he took over is keeping Jackson on a winning track.
“That’s always been a staple of myself and the program. I’m a defensive-minded, defense-first person,” Butch said. “Our matchups and rotations are geared around the defensive end and if you look at the numbers, our points given up and rebounding percentage, that keeps us in games.”
The frequent message from the coaching staff is that if opposing teams can’t score points, then those teams can’t win. For a Jackson squad replacing about 91 percent of its scoring from last season, trying to outscore foes and win shootouts wasn’t in the cards.
The numbers to which Butch alluded include allowing just one opponent - Federal League co-leader and then-top-ranked Canton McKinley - to score more than 49 points. The Bulldogs notched 51, but given that they’re led by two-time reigning Ohio Ms. Basketball Kierstan Bell, holding McKinley to 51 points is hardly anything to feel bad about.
The tough news for Jackson is that the tail end of its schedule has become a gauntlet thanks to the recent spate of subzero, snowy winter weather that blew through the area and forced the postponement of dozens of games for local teams.
That means Jackson’s second games with both McKinley and GlenOak were moved to a three-day period in mid-February, a span that comes after non-league games against double-digit-win foes Revere and Twinsburg, the latter having been a fixture at the state tournament in recent seasons.
In short, the final four games of the regular season will bring four of the toughest opponents to date this season and after that, it’s time for the postseason.
“With Revere, GlenOak, Twinsburg and McKinley, it’s not anything we haven’t been exposed to and we’ve also played Laurel and Austintown Fitch, who were ranked 13th in the state,” Butch said.
The small bit of relief in the road ahead is that McKinley is once again in a different district than the rest of the Federal League, so the Canton Division I district bracket has one less roadblock to navigate for the Polar Bears and the rest of the field.
Heading into the final four games of the season with 13-5 record and 6-4 league mark underscore how well defense has served the Polar Bears. Through 18 games, they’ve allowed and average of 32.2 points per game and whether they have a highly recruited player like Mikesell or Dretke or not, locking down opponents’ offenses is a way to keep winning games.
“Defensive strength creates long term sustainability even though you’ll have ebbs and flows with scoring and offense,” Butch said. “For us, it’s the mixing up of defenses … we don’t stick to one and we have four or five we rotate to.”
Butch also credited the “coachability” of his players, who have adapted to a new system this season and done it well enough to position themselves for what’s expected to be a top-four seed in the district bracket. He admitted that with a game against GlenOak just days before the postseason begins, there could be some gamesmanship between the two teams in trying to keep a few tricks up their sleeves in case they meet again in the tournament.
Should that matchup come, Jackson will have plenty of experience in close games to draw upon. The Polar Bears are 5-2 in games decided by five points or less and 12 of their 18 games have been decided by single digits. Simply put, they don’t play in many lopsided games and having that knowledge of how it feels and what it takes to succeed in such settings is a valuable asset come tournament time.
“That’s incredibly important when you have a young team like we do,” Butch said. “Maintaining composure in crunch time can be tough for how young we are, but our girls are learning about finishing out games and that you need every defensive stop you can get and every possession on offense, you need to execute.”
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB