JACKSON TWP. The beginning of the high school basketball season is much like the first few miles of a marathon; a good start doesn't guarantee a good overall result in the end, but a bad start can most definitely guarantee that a team or athlete won't get where they want to be by the time it's over.
Fortunately for the Jackson girls basketball team, its start to the season has been nearly as good as could be, with the exception of a season opening nonleague loss to a Medina team that is considered one of the top teams in Greater Cleveland.
Through seven games, the Polar Bears have turned in six wins, including four in a row to open Federal League play and put themselves in position to end a four-decades-plus league title drought.
"That's given us great momentum to have a home two-point win over GlenOak ... it was a big win for our varsity girls and really for the whole program, to get over hump with a team that has been in Columbus (playing in the state tournament) last year and been a juggernaut the past couple years," seventh-year head coach Anthony Butch said. "It really validated all of the hard work our girls did over the summer."
That game, Butch said, is the kind that tests a team in a way it will often be tested in the postseason - or in the second round of league play, when teams see a potential league title within reach and throw everything they have at every opponent in a quest to top what Butch often describes as "one of best girls basketball leagues in state of Ohio."
"It's a grind and it doesn't let up until the end of January," Butch said.
There is no question that it's taken a team effort to get to 4-0 in league play and while that's a long way from the 10 or so wins it's likely to take to capture the crown and end the drought, Butch pointed to the contributions of two newcomers in playing a big role during Jackson's fast start.
"We have two freshmen who are playing significant minutes, Lauren Pallotta and Leena Patibandla," Butch said. "We knew both of them had outstanding skills and abilities, but until the Hoover game, they hadn't really been in that kind of situation."
Both freshman post players have proven up to the challenge and once the first pass through league play concludes this month, there will be a brief respite before the second round, which will bring, among others, Canton McKinley to Jackson High School for a matchup that figures to go a long way toward deciding the league title and could also feature two teams likely to earn high seeds in the district bracket in February.
"It's just the mental and physical grind of week after week playing someone who's a top caliber team, it prepares you well and it's why the league champ has ended up in Columbus a lot over the last two decades," Butch said.
He pointed to the Polar Bears' non-league winning percentage over the past five years, which is better than .900, as evidence that Federal League play is a great training ground for the rest of the year.
One break the Polar Bears will get this season is not hosting their own holiday tournament, which Butch said had become too much of a burden to schedule and run. They'll instead play in a small-scale holiday event held at GlenOak.
That is one step in continuing what has been a great start to the season and the Polar Bears know as well as anyone that the final month-plus of the season is its most difficult stretch and it's very difficult to keep a winning run going in January and beyond.
Armed with some new faces alongside their talented cast of returning players, they're about to find out whether they have what it takes to put a much-awaited league championship trophy in their trophy case.