JACKSON TWP. The Jackson Polar Bears spent the season telling anyone who asked that they were a tough, physical football team that wouldn't back down from any challenge.
As they reflect on their campaign now that it's come to a close, that belief hasn't changed and along the way to their 8-3 record and another playoff berth, they stared down some big obstacles. It was the last of those obstacles, perennial Northeast Ohio playoff power Euclid, that did the Polar Bears in to bring Jackson's fifth season under head coach Tim Budd to a close.
"The group of seniors and leaders we had did a good job ... they played hard and did a good job of helping us get back to the playoffs," Budd said.
A third playoff berth in the past four years was anything but a guarantee against a stacked schedule that saw Jackson play multiple playoff teams, including three - McKinley, Perry and Mayfield - who advanced to the second round of the postseason.
During the course of the season, a tough, yet undersized offensive line came to define much of Jackson's success and its approach on offense. While standout senior receiver Jake Ryan and his highlight reel catches drew a lot of the attention, the line paved the way for success not only for Ryan, but senior Ethan Adkins, quarterback Hunter Geissinger and the rest of the team's skill players.
Adkins set the Jackson all-time career rushing record in Week 10 and was a member of a senior class that drove the team all season long.
"They really wanted to win all the way back to offseason workouts," Budd said. "Our senior leaders wanted to win games and they loved playing football. A lot of our experienced seniors set a good example of how hard you have to play against our schedule and to win in our league."
Indeed, the Federal League hasn't gotten any easier to compete with and win against, with McKinley and Perry making the playoffs, Lake and Hoover just missing and Green taking steps forward in its first season under new head coach Mark Geis.
Yet after a Week 2 loss to Mayfield, which went undefeated in its first 11 games of the season and only bowed out of the playoffs in a hard-fought, 21-17 loss to defending Division II state champion Hoban last week, Jackson began league play knowing it couldn't afford many more defeats if it was going to return to the playoffs itself.
That made the Polar Bears' response to the onset of league play all the more rewarding for both players and coaches.
"Probably going back to back weeks beating Perry, beat them with physicality at their game and the week after that, going into Lake with them being 4-0 and having a big crowd for their homecoming, to out-tough them and win those two games back to back to was the best part of the season for us," Budd said.
It's tough to argue given the quality of those wins, even though avid Jackson fans may argue that any win over arch rival Hoover automatically tops the list of memorable wins in a given year. If the first five seasons of Jackson and Hoover's tenures under Budd and Vikings head coach Brian Baum are any indication, fans on both sides may want to stock up on antacids and stress balls ahead of future iterations of the rivalry.
This time around, a goal line stand in the final minute gave the purple and gold side a 29-23 win, adding another outstanding chapter to the rivalry.
"It's been five straight close finishes with them and for the fans and communities, I think that's made that game even more special," Budd said. "Thankfully we've been to win three of them and in every one, we've had at least an outside shot at the playoffs."
This year's win cemented Jackson's place as the sixth seed in Division I, Region 1 and sent Jackson to Euclid, where they suffered a 28-19 loss to the Panthers. For now, Ryan is the only senior who has committed to play at the college level, although Budd believes Victor Shott, Adkins and Joe Ackerman may have chances if they choose to pursue them.
The senior receiver, whom Budd described as "definitely one of the best I've ever had at tracking ball and playing the ball in the air," made strides in becoming stronger and more physical this season, according to the veteran coach. Ryan is expecting to contribute immediately for Colgate and leaves behind a highlight reel that will stand out amongst the Jackson faithful for years to come.
The team as a whole ends its year having created quite a few similar memories to add to the program's history.