JACKSON TWP. The simple truth is that every program, even the most successful ones, have years when contending for titles and hoisting trophies gives way to developing young athletes and trying to piece together team chemistry on the fly.
That's life for the Jackson girls bowling team this winter, having said farewell to its two top performers from last season and now staring a youth movement – and the accompanying challenges – squarely in the face. Their resulting 0-9 record is a mark that hasn't been common for the Polar Bears for much of the program's recent history, but new head coach Dirk Hartman is doing his best to keep his team in a positive frame of mind.
"We have a very young team," Hartman said. "We have three returning starters from last year (and) we lost two seniors, one who went to the states and the other who was all-conference."
Replacing the likes of Alicia Yacono and Kailey Bonniwell, both of who were multi-year letterwinners and among the top bowlers in the area, was bound to create some big holes to fill.
This crew Hartman has asked to fill those holes includes seniors Katora Morris, Sydney LoVaglio and Ainsley Shanks, all of whom have been asked to take on much larger roles this season. It can be a lot to ask of athletes in any sport to contribute much more as seniors than they have prior to that in their career, but with Bonniwell and Yacono gone, it has been a replacement-by-committee approach.
"Our goal is to get over the hump and win a match," Hartman said. "We are very inexperienced ... the girls who did return from last year rotated between varsity and JV."
The seniors have gotten some much-needed help from the underclassmen on the roster, including sophomore Avery Hawkins, who leads the Polar Bears with a 173 scoring average per game. Hawkins has proven that underclassmen on the roster can step in and contribute in a big way and Hartman knows that there will need to be more of the same across the roster in order for the team to earn its first win.
He also knows that in order to earn that first win, the Polar Bears have to tend to the details. Against a schedule that includes some of Stark County's best teams and bowlers, every pin counts and for a young team working toward its first win, being consistent in technique and approach can make a world of difference.
"We need to improve our technique and spare shooting," Hartman said. "We have great team chemistry and we all cheer for each other even though this entire year has been a struggle ... the girls have hung in there despite a pretty disappointing start to the season."
Anyone who has ever played on a team that doesn't have a lot of wins knows that sticking together, having one another's backs and not getting down on one another is vital if a team is to make progress. Scores are improving, Hartman noted, but against the talented foes Jackson has faced thus far, it has been tough to keep pace.
For now, the Polar Bears are working on raising their own games and trying to take small, consistent steps forward so that as they gain more experience and try to become one of those veteran teams racking up wins, they are steadily trending in the right direction.
It won't be a fast or easy process, but the hope is that it's underway and gaining traction.