JACKSON TWP. The hope for every high school basketball team in Ohio is to avoid the feeling as long as possible and enjoy the ride while it lasts.
The feeling is the disappointment of abrupt end to their season with a tournament loss and given that only four teams in the state avoid that fate every year, the rest all have to face the reality at some point that after months of hard work, their campaign is over and it’s time to move forward to what’s next.
Jackson has avoided that feeling as well as most anyone in recent years, with two state titles and numerous deep tournament runs in the past decade, with this year’s end coming in a 65-45 loss to Green in the Canton Division I district final Saturday night.
“Hats off to our kids for all of the hard work they to keep tradition,” veteran head coach Tim Debevec said. “Going into the year everybody didn’t think we could stay on top, so credit to our kids who kept us on top.”
On top was in one sense a reference to a fifth straight Federal League title, which is a rare feat in any sport. It also alluded to earning the top seed in the district tournament and getting back to the district final despite the loss of another round of talented seniors from one year ago.
In their place was a senior class with players such as Hayden Junker, Will Hyde, Sean Reed and Anthony Mazzeo, all of whom found themselves in new or expanded roles this season and had moments to shine during a year that also included all-league honors for nearly half of the roster.
Saying goodbye to seniors, who often have played for a program since their youth basketball days, is arguably the hardest part of the process for any coach and team.
“Our seniors … you feel bad for the kids who are graduating and moving on when it ends,” Debevec said. “But our seniors were a part of a state championship three years ago, they won league titles and they were district champs last year.”
The loss to Green was a rematch between two teams that traded shots all year long, each winning on the other’s home court and dueling for the league title until the last game of the season, when the Polar Bears claimed the crown. Before the regular season ended, it seemed likely that a third matchup was set to happen thanks to Jackson and Green claiming the first and second seeds, respectively, in the district bracket.
Both had challenging games leading up to the title game, but were clearly the two best teams in the Canton district. A 27-7 second-quarter spurt by the Bulldogs was the decisive stretch of the game and the second half became a frustrating uphill battle that felt like literally trying to climb a muddy, slick hill for the Polar Bears against a stingy Green defense that has been its hallmark all year.
One of the characteristics of this year’s roster for Jackson was the presence of yet another group of players who weren’t one-sport athletes, focused entirely on basketball. While some of the program’s best players over the years have been basketball-only competitors, its best teams have featured multi-sport athletes who may not be standouts on the court, but make major contributions to the team’s success.
This year was no different and perhaps no player embodied that idea better than Junker. One month before the district title game, he finalized his college plans by signing his National Letter of Intent to play football at Kent State. Junker brought the size and strength he’ll use as a pass rusher for the Golden Flashes to the basketball court and that toughness fit well with a squad that was more defense-first and played at a slower tempo than many of Debevec’s teams have.
The style suited the personnel on the roster and the veteran coach hopes that from the juniors on the team down through the youth ranks, players see how competing in multiple sports benefited Junker and the others on the roster who did the same.
“We’re very fortunate to have seniors who set a good example for kids who come up through the program,” Debevec said. “I’m a firm believer in the fact that you only go through high school one time, so play two or three sports and enjoy them. You need competitors and guys who know how to compete in any sport and without guys like Junker, Dillon Dingler, Jaret Pallotta, Kyle Mottice and guys like them, we wouldn’t have the success we’ve had.”
That success includes 19 wins each of the past two seasons and 20-plus wins in the two that preceded them, allowing this year’s senior class to rank among some of the best ever to come through the program in terms of games won during its four years. Those who remain will, after the annual exit meeting each player has with the coaching staff, get back to work quickly in whatever form that takes - spring sports for some, offseason skill work and conditioning for others - with an eye on starting the process all over again and trying to make next year as successful as possible.
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