GREEN By now, no one questions whether the Green Bulldogs can battle the best the Federal League boys basketball scene has to offer.
They've beaten all six of their league rivals, they've won league titles and last season, they submitted a postseason run that sent them all the way to the regional tournament. Now, their challenge is how they handle being widely viewed as one of the odds-on favorites for another league title and getting the best shot every opponent can send their way.
It's a veteran group that returns for 23rd-year head coach Mark Kinsley and the underlying belief is that the wealth of battle-tested veterans will be a difference maker.
"Our depth and experience," Kinsley said when asked his team's biggest strength. "We have four four-year varsity players and a three-year varsity player returning in our senior class."
That sort of senior class, which has played key roles in multiple big games for the Bulldogs, is hard to come by for any program. But with seniors Garrison Keeslar, Donovan O'Neil, Ryan Smith and Shea Simmer all returning as starters and Alex Casper returning as the fifth highly experienced member of the senior class, Green figures to not be overwhelmed in any big moments on account of not having been in such spots before. Mix in junior Nathan Smith and sophomore Trey Martin and the Bulldogs have seven players who have been through the fire before.
What will be a challenge, Kinsley said, is piecing together where everyone fits as Green reshuffles its rotation following the graduation of all-time leading scorer Kaleb Martin.
"We are still working on figuring out roles for each player," Kinsley said. "We need to improve on the defensive end of the floor. Defense must be our calling card this season."
Those areas of the game will take time to resolve, but with goals that include league, district and regional championships and the belief that they have the talent and experience to reach those aims, the spotlight figures to be bright on the Bulldogs all season long.
They showed up well in a preview against the likes of Medina, Cleveland Heights and Olmsted Falls and have to translate that strong showing to the early stages of the season.
Canton McKinley is seen as another possible league favorite and even though Jackson graduated four senior starters from last season, anyone who's been around the Federal League for long has learned not to count the Polar Bears out or underestimate their ability to reload and rebuild with the next wave of upcoming talent from the strong youth system they've built over the years.
"Our goal is to win the Federal League and to play deep into March," Kinsley said. "Our depth will allow us to play different lineups throughout the season."
Key to that depth could be the addition of players such as senior Andrew Micale and sophomore Zack Oddo to the rotation and how quickly they can settle in and provide solid minutes if foul trouble or injuries hit the roster. The mantle of favorite for a team that made it all the way to the regional final before falling to Lakewood St. Edward will be a new challenge, but one that a confident group of Bulldogs is eager to take on and see if they can handle it.