JACKSON TWP. The Jackson Polar Bears aren't waiting until the postseason to make history this time.
Halfway through the high school girls basketball season, the program is going places it has never been before, even in its seven successful seasons under head coach Anthony Butch. Following an opening game loss to Medina, the Polar Bears have yet to taste another defeat and that run of success has elevated Jackson to new, history-making heights.
"We just set a school record for longest winning streak (with 11 in a row entering this week's game against Hoover)," Butch said. "And as of two hours ago, we're ranked in the Associated Press top 10 in the state for the first time at number nine."
Both feats come as the season makes the turn from first half to second half, setting the stage for even more history in the weeks ahead. While the past few seasons have brought history-making turns in the form of deepest postseason run in program history and numerous single-game, season and career shooting and scoring records for former Jackson guard and current Maryland Terrapins star Taylor Mikesell, one goal has continued to elude the purple and gold: gold in the form of Federal League championship trophy.
The 11-game winning streak includes one pass through the whole league, staking Jackson to pole position with a 6-0 league record. While they still have to play every league foe one more time, it's been years since a Jackson girls basketball team was in this spot halfway through the season.
"It definitely puts us in good position going into second time through the league," Butch said. "It also puts a target on us game by game and we need to stay focused."
Because none of the players have been in the position of being the leader in the league race going down the home stretch at the varsity level, they may not know exactly what to expect in the days ahead. However, Butch believes that naïveté could actually help his squad in some way.
Rather than be overwhelmed by the pressure, he's hoping that the youthful energy and lack of familiarity with the feeling of playing with a major target on their backs will help keep his younger players from feeling overwhelmed.
One of those players who has stepped up in a big way has been junior Alayna McMullen, who has proven to be a great complementary piece to standout sophomore forward Emma Dretke and senior guard Kerianne Diese.
"Alayna McMullen has stepped up on both ends," Butch said. "She's played outstanding defense and really done a great job on offense."
McMullen, Diese, Dretke and the rest of the team know they'll take the best shot of Green, Hoover, Canton McKinley and the rest of the league in the second run of league games and if they're going to hold onto their lead, Butch points to one specific area of the game where they'll have to improve.
"Rebounding is something that continues to be Achilles heel for us. Against Green they stayed in game because they outrebounded us and got second chances," Butch said. "There's two factors, one is that we don't have a lot of size and we're not an overly big team, so at times if we're not boxing out and using good technique, we can get bullied a bit, and also, we play a lot of zone defense, which makes it tougher when it comes to boxing out and rebounding."
As for the accolades coming their way, it would be easy to take the approach that rankings and records don't matter as much and to exhort the players to keep their eyes on the task at hand rather than bask in the added attention coming their way.
However, that's not the message Butch and his staff are preaching at this point in the year.
"It's pretty cool to get the school record for a winning steak and to be in the top 10 for the first time in school history. I haven't haven't shied away from letting girls know about it and enjoy it," Butch said. "when rewards come and acknowledgment comes, it should be celebrated and I don't believe in jinxing it. When the popularity increases and the girls get more attention and get congratulated at school, it's more of the payoff for all of the hard work they've put in."
That hard work has set the stage for more success to come and put Jackson a few wins from its first league title in more than four decades. Should their winning ways continue, the attention, pressure and excitement will continue to grow and with them, the chance to keep rewriting the record books.