JACKSON TWP. The first eight games of the season have shown the Jackson Polar Bears a lot about who they are, as well as who they believe they can be.
The 4-5 record through nine games may not be the type of mark fans of the program and observers have gotten used to from the purple and gold over what has largely been a decade of dominance that includes the first two state championships in program history, but it makes sense given the roster dynamics entering the season.
"We're playing a lot of young guys and it's been challenging," Jackson head coach Tim Debevec said. "But there's a lot of basketball still to be played."
By now, it's no mystery that saying farewell to four senior starters who were the centerpiece of last season's roster left the Polar Bears with question marks. While they once again have a relatively large group of seniors, overall those seniors didn't enter the campaign with a wealth of varsity experience.
Thus, the focus for them – and for the group as a whole – has been to get up to speed with the varsity game, adjust to new roles and remain competitive while doing so.
"You want to be getting some wins as you learn," Debevec said. "We're playing a freshman and playing 11 or 12 guys some nights."
That large rotation has been a combination of getting new players experience and also trying to find the best lineup combinations. One positive aspect of the tough start has been a 2-1 Federal League record in what's shaping up to be a highly competitive league race.
GlenOak's 4-0 league start has one-loss Jackson, one-loss McKinley and one-loss Green in hot pursuit and through the first few games of the league calendar, it seems that the race will be as balanced and unpredictable as it has regularly been over the past few years, even if the faces at the top shift a bit. A win over Lake is one of the high points to date for Jackson, which sits at 2-2 in league play, and given the battles that ensue every time the Polar Bears and Blue Streaks step on the court of late, any such victory is one to value.
Another positive aspect of the first eight games is that Jackson has amassed four wins against a difficult slate that includes top teams from the area and also across Northeast Ohio and only two of those matchups have taken place at home.
"We've played a tough schedule, including a team that's started 7-0, Cleveland Rhodes," Debevec said. "We also had a heartbreaker against Hoban."
The Hoban loss was the sort of last-possession, down-to-the-wire game that inexperienced teams can struggle to win, so taking lessons from that contest and performing better in the next such contest is the mission at hand.
Michael Skeriotis is the leading scorer at 14 points per game, with teammates Kevin James and Jake Aleman each chipping in with 8.5 points per game.
With the first game of the new year being a 54-50 setback against McKinley, Jackson didn’t get a chance to step lightly into 2020. Then again, given the schedule that awaits them over the next two-plus months, it was fitting that the Polar Bears may stepped right back into the ring with one of the heavyweights on their schedule.
Injuries also have been part of the difficult opening month as Skeriotis, Trent Jones and others have missed time with various maladies. Every team experiences some level of injury woes over the course of the year, so that part of the equation isn't unexpected, but for a team working on ironing out its identity, missing key pieces further complicates the process.
Asked which end of the court is more difficult to build and maintain consistency on for a young team, Debevec said it's equally difficult on both offense and defense.
"We have to defend a little bit better if we want to win games," Debevec said. "We also need to be more consistent offensively."
The holiday break has afforded chances to get a bit more rest, as games are a bit less frequent with Christmas and the new year rolling in, and this winter Jackson didn’t take its regular trip to Florida for a holiday tournament.
With that extra time with school not in session, Debevec said his squad spent more time on team building and off-court activities designed to bring players together and build chemistry.
Whether those efforts can boost he on-court product and bring more wins as the tournament nears is a question mark, but there won't be many chances for the Polar Bears to catch their breath now that the holidays are over. Now, it's two-month march to the tournament with one heavyweight battle after another along the path to the postseason.