JACKSON TWP. The question is the same and now, the Jackson Polar Bears are trying to change the answer.
By now, anyone who has been around the program in any capacity in recent years knows what it is: Will this be the year the Polar Bears snap their long-running Federal League title drought? That drought stands at 42 years and counting.
Seventh-year head coach Anthony Butch has presided over some of the most successful seasons in program history, including Jackson's first-ever regional final berth. However, the always-grueling Federal League has kept the league title out of the Polar Bears' grasp.
"Every year, that's the target and goal, competing and being in mix for the league title," Butch said. "That's our goal every year and I think this year, it's wide open because there's not that one superpower we've had the last decade."
He pointed to teams such as Canton McKinley, Hoover and GlenOak all winning titles and reaching the state tournament, but with McKinley standout Kierstan Bell having graduated and other top teams in the league all coping with their own graduation losses, the balance of power could well shift this winter.
Jackson is hoping that its relatively high level of continuity – with many of its top players back – will propel it to the top of the standings for the first time in 42 long years.
"We're trying to get in the mix and to do that, we have match toughness those teams like McKinley and Hoover have had year in and year out," Butch said. "I don't question our skill being able to dribble, shoot and pass, but we have to be able to match the grit and toughness they bring. We return the majority of our team from last year add two incoming freshman who will see varsity time."
Those freshman, Lauren Pallotta and Leena Patibandla, both bring size to a team that doesn't have a ton of it and could be valuable players over the course of the campaign.
Shooting, Butch said, should be the Polar Bears' calling card. He described the team's overall shooting ability as the best he's seen as a coach, even though just two years ago, the best shooter in program history and arguably one of the best in recent state history in Taylor Mikesell was torching the nets for Jackson.
What Butch believes is different this season is having shooting depth beyond just one standout marksman. That would set this team apart from many of Butch's first six teams at Jackson, which were typically led by their defense.
Standout sophomore forward Emma Dretke is back after earning All-Ohio honors as a freshman and seeking to build on a stellar start to her varsity career. She has a strong running mate in senior guard Kerianne Diese, whose memorable, district title-winning shot as a sophomore still stands out as an all-time moment for the program.
Dretke already has strong interest from Division I college programs and figures to get more attention this season both from college coaches and opposing defenses looking to shut her down, but has proven to be a tough player to stop.
Diese is a veteran whom Butch called "a blessing to have" in the program and who has served as a bridge between the hard-working, successful teams of the Mikesell era and the current iteration of the team.
"She's really carried on that tradition of hard work and work ethic. She's taken that and run with it and worked as hard as anyone in the offseason in the gym getting up literally thousands of shots," Butch said of Diese. "She's carried on that culture we've built the last eight years."
The challenge at hand is using that culture of the past eight years to end a streak that has built up for more than four decades. Winning the league title is the first goal at hand, but the irony is that it may take winning it a second time to get deep into the postseason.
That's because McKinley has rejoined the rest of the league in the district tournament. The Bulldogs had to go elsewhere to begin the postseason the past couple of years because they were the hosts for the Canton Division I district and therefore unable to play in the same district as their six league rivals.
The district tournament has moved to Perry this season, meaning the league's top teams will all be in the same place for the sectional and district rounds. Jackson, McKinley, GlenOak and Hoover will do battle in what Butch described as a sort of Federal League tournament. Whomever emerges from that mix, with Lake, Green and others also a part of it, figures to be a favorite heading into regional play.
Jackson has its eyes on being that team, but the Polar Bears have learned in recent years how hard the fight is to reach their goals and that the season is a long journey with plenty of twists along the way.