JACKSON TWP. Eight times in the past 10 seasons, the Jackson Polar Bears have won Federal League boys basketball titles. Making it nine titles in 11 seasons will be – pardon the pun – the polar opposite of easy.
For starters, there are four of them missing from last season for head coach Tim Debevec's squad. Losing multiple senior starters is nothing new for the Polar Bears; they've had some standout senior classes in the past decade and have bid farewell to talented scorers, high flyers, outstanding rebounders and hard-nosed defenders.
What will make this season more difficult in terms of staying atop the standings is that the level of competition continues to rise, a fact of which Debevec, his staff and players are well aware.
"We're just trying to figure things out ... you could say we're inexperienced because we I lost four starters, but every year is different," Debevec said. "Green and McKinley are probably the favorites to win the league and it's a good league that keeps getting better."
To be fair, both packs of Bulldogs are talented and Green showed up in a big way in a recent preseason preview, beating Medina, Cleveland Heights and Olmsted Falls. Jackson has its own preseason and non-conference tests, with scrimmages against the likes of St. Vincent-St. Mary, Pickerington North, Pickerington Central and Mentor ahead as they get ready for a campaign in which senior guard Trent Jones is the lone returning starter.
Jones, who had some impressive shooting performances last season and hit some big shots one year ago, will likely see his role expand this year.
"Trent Jones being our only returning starter, he'll probably have to look to score more and do other things for us ... get to the basket a bit more," Debevec said. He pointed to fellow returnees Jake Byers, Jake Aleman and Colin Gelal as players whose previous varsity experience should be a valuable commodity for a young team.
What the veteran coach knows, having won a state title and also having coached teams that underwent a massive roster overhaul from one season to another and had to find their way during the year, is that everyone on the roster will need to find a role and fill it well in order for the year to be a success.
"You can't belly ache about being young ... our guys have to grow up, fill the roles and do their part to keep our program on top," Debevec said.
Given Jackson's run of success for the past decade and the number of players it has sent on to the college level, even if the Polar Bears aren't the odds-on favorites to win the title heading into the season, beating the guys in purple and gold still counts as a big win for the rest of the league.
There's also the fact that being young and lacking a wealth of varsity experience across the roster doesn't mean that roster is devoid of talent. Sustained success over the years had created a strong, massive youth program in the district and there is always another wave of skilled underclassmen waiting for their chance to shine.
What will determine much of how this season goes is how fast and how well players such as Kevin James, Hunter Geissinger, Mack Kistler and other new faces can adapt to varsity basketball and hold their own against older, more experienced rivals.
All of them, Debevec says, know and believe in the idea that youth and inexperience don't change their goals and don't change the up-tempo style the program has thrived upon in recent years.
"We expect to play the same type of tempo ... you have some up and some down years, but these guys, they want this tradition to keep going," Debevec said. "We want to get better by end of the end of the year and our goal is to win the Federal League title, which we've done eight out 10 years, and to make things tough on teams in the tournament."
It's a long march ahead to what Jackson hopes is a tournament run that ends in March, one that will test once again how quickly the Polar Bears can retool and renovate on the fly and find a way to roar when it matters most at season's end.