JACKSON TWP. The first nine games of the season have shown the Jackson Polar Bears’ ability to pile up runs at a rapid rate.
The reason for that productivity at the plate, however, isn’t what you might expect. Scoring 80 runs in nine games hasn’t come due to massive amounts of extra batting practice, some shiny new bats or even the chance to play their first several games in a tournament in warmer conditions than have prevailed in Northeast Ohio so far this spring.
No, the biggest factor in hitting better so far this season: going to class.
“This offseason, we spent a lot of time on mental training and talking different counts, what they mean, what pitch to look for, what’s their favorite pitch,” Jackson head coach Stacey Patterson said. “We broke it down in the classroom as far as thinking what we’re doing while in the (batter’s) box and adding education to the reaction part of it.”
Patterson explained that the classroom-based approach did get some resistance from the players at first, but spending an hour and a half sitting at the same desks players would inhabit for geometry, history or economics classes while dissecting the science of hitting proved to be beneficial. Asking teenagers to sit at desks for 90 minutes instead of being on the field or hitting in the batting cage isn’t an easy sell, but part of the reason the coaching staff felt the approach would work is the composition of the team.
“It was difficult at first and we did get a little bit of push back from them, but they ultimately enjoyed it,” Patterson said. “The girls we have, they like to sit and talk and they enjoy talking softball. If confused or if they don’t understand language we’re using, then it helps to sit down in class and talk about it. I have very smart girls and that is how they learn.”
One of the off shoots of the extra classroom time, according to Patterson, has been the team’s hitters seeing more pitches at the plate and being more willing to work counts and wait for their pitch rather than chase the first pitch they see. Being able to connect the notes they took in the classroom with what they see at the plate has been the theme of the early season and so far, the results have been positive.
The first major chance to escape the desk life and the chilly Ohio weather came on the team’s spring break trip to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where the annual Cal Ripken Experience tournament saw Jackson square off with teams from both Illinois and Ohio as they all started their year with better weather and on synthetic turf field that meant they could play regardless of the weather.
Games of 21 and 13 runs were highlights for the offense during the trip and perhaps no hitter has been hotter through the early weeks of the season than Sophia Bernard, who leads the team with three home runs, 12 extra-base hits and 14 RBIs. With Bernard providing much of the power, Lexi Eckman (15 runs), Ellie Chevalier (11 runs) and Amanda Oeder (11 runs) have gotten on base consistently and come around to score with regularity.
The Tennessee trip also provided chances for players trying to earn playing time to get on the field and show were they could contribute and over the course of the season, with injuries an inevitability, their chances to shine are bound to come as they need to step in for teammates who may miss action due to health issues.
Staying in a cabin instead of a hotel during the trip gave it a different slant than some spring break trips taken by high school teams and the hope was in part to build more camaraderie and chemistry.
As that bond develops, the Polar Bears are hoping their defense does the same. Right now, it’s the one area where the team is struggling to find consistency. Patterson noted that in a pair of games last week, the defense was the limiting factor in trying to earn key early season wins.
“Defense is our most work in progress part of our game. We had losses to Hoover and Louisville last week that came from key defensive errors and big innings,” Patterson said. “We have really good pitching, but our pitchers are young and can sometimes miss their spots, so we’ve tried to hammer defense as much as possible … where to throw the ball, how to approach the ball and communication on the field.”
The game plan is to have a smart, communicative defense that can have its pitchers’ backs if they miss their spot and a batter puts the ball in play. Pairing better defense and improving pitching with a strong offense is the ultimate goal and getting that accomplished before the postseason begins next month will be no easy tasks. With Green off to a solid start, Hoover and Perry both with talented lineups and no shortage of tough games in between now and the tournament, Jackson should have both plenty of opportunities to work out its issues and prove what it’s capable of in a game setting.
How their classroom work impacts their play in games is another question to be answered, but the early returns are encouraging.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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