JACKSON TWP. As its annual spring trip to North Carolina has become a tradition in recent years, the purpose of the trip has differed each time for the Jackson girls lacrosse team.
Sometimes, the trip has seen a team with state title aspirations head south for spring break with a roster full of seniors, seeking to sharpen their skills against top-level out-of-state opponents. Other years, it’s been a squad trying to iron out its identity and using the trip as a way to lay the foundation for the year ahead.
This time around, it’s the first major exposure to varsity competition for a team that returns just four varsity veterans from one year ago and is trying to get a large number of underclassmen settled into its rotation.
“I think with the loss of 12 seniors and and having a large incoming freshman class, on this trip we’re working hard on continuing that culture and and helping those new players learn how to play the Jackson way,” fourth-year head coach John Kroah said. “Outside of that, we also get to play four strong teams from the Charlotte area.”
The season officially began several days prior to the North Carolina trip with a 17-4 win over Wadsworth in the season opener, but other than that, the Polar Bears have channeled their efforts into practices, workouts and scrimmages in an effort to acclimate their new players to varsity competition.
Juniors Abigail Lair, Camille Patton, Carly Johnson and senior Cameron Dingler aren’t the only upperclassmen on the roster, but they are the most experienced players in the lineup at this point. Lair and Patton led the team with four goals each in the Wadsworth game and Johnson also found the back of the net in the win.
Knowing that much of the lineup is younger players, Kroah and his staff are counting on that quartet to set the tone and establish the right atmosphere within the team.
“The spotlight is kind of on them to lead,” Kroah said. “Being part of a couple of strong teams in the past in supporting roles, now they have to take the lead and find their way from that supporting role into a leadership role with so many new faces on the field.”
Two of those new faces are battling for the starting goalie spot as senior Shyanna White and freshman Hannah Sanders are vying for the chance to replace the graduated Grace Merrill between the pipes. Kroah noted that because Merrill was the starter from the time he took over, there hasn’t been this kind of battle for the starting spot as the team has now.
Merrill, now a freshman keeper for Kent State, was an All-Ohio selection who helmed the defense all four years of her high school career. Having two players contending for the starting spot is something the coaching staff hopes will bring out the best in both athletes, but Kroah admitted he doesn’t want to have the lacrosse equivalent of a two-quarterback system all season long.
“I haven't really given the nod to either one and we’re still evaluating … the goalie position has always been set with Grace Merrill since I’ve been here so this is new, but we want to get decision made sooner rather than later,” Kroah said.
In that sense, the North Carolina trip is a nice chance to have that battle play out and to have other decisions on playing time and the rotation sorted out away from the bright lights that can shine on a successful program back at home. While the games during the trip are regular-season games and matter in the Polar Bears’ overall record, they’re also a chance to get away and spend time together as a team.
Part of the trip will be spent at the U.S. National Whitewater Center just outside Charlotte, where the team has gone in previous trips to North Carolina and gone through the center’s ropes course as a way to challenge themselves physically and build team chemistry.
Given how packed the schedule is for most spring sports - the entire season taking place largely within the span from late March to late May for some - once the Polar Bears return home, they know there won’t be many chances to catch their breath in the weeks ahead. “It's a different location seven hours away from home and I’m glad we got that first game (against Wadsworth) in under the lights and with so many freshmen on the varsity level, to get win for them was huge and along with the games on the trip, to help them get over the nerves and newness of it,” Kroah said.
How valuable the trip turns out to be won’t be known until the season plays out, but right now, it appears to be the perfect fit for a team in need of answers to the questions facing it.
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