JACKSON TWP. After 42 years in pursuit of a Federal League girls basketball title, the Jackson Polar Bears didn't just accomplish their mission; they did the equivalent of a defender elevating and rejecting an opponent's shot with such malice that the ball goes flying into the ninth row of the stands.
Jackson snapped its 42-year league title drought and won its first-ever outright crown with a resounding 62-34 triumph against Perry, snapping four-plus decades of frustration and near misses by clinching the crown with two league games still to play and no rivals closer than three games.
At 20-2 and 12-0 in league play, it's safe to say the Polar Bears have boat-raced their competition in the sort of dominant effort rarely seen in Federal League hoops.
"We're extremely excited and this really shows how hard our girls worked ... it's good for the program, it's good for the community and it feels amazing," seventh-year head coach Anthony Butch said.
He made winning a league title a primary goal when he took over the program earlier this decade and while Jackson has won sectional and district titles and reach the regional finals for the first time in program history during his tenure, the league's top spot had eluded them.
That the league-clinching win came over Perry was fitting and the contest at Perry High School also clued the Polar Bears in to the fact that their title is even more significant than they realized.
"Our last league title was 1978, but we realized looking at the banners in their gym that when we won the title in 1978, we shared it with them, so we're the first Jackson team to ever win it outright," Butch said with plenty of pride in his voice. The accolades have been mounting all season long as a school-record 16 game winning streak, a top 10 state ranking for the first time ever and the potential for the first undefeated league mark in program history are all in the mix.
Winning 12 Federal League games in a row isn't lost on the Polar Bears.
"When you play in a league like the Federal League that's arguably one of the best girls basketball leagues in Ohio, it's really a grind to try to win 12 games over some really good teams," Butch noted.
The win over Perry clinched the win and while it wasn't guaranteed, there were plans in place for a celebration should Jackson come out with the victory. After the contest, the school organized a celebration back at Jackson High School in which players and coaches got to cut down the nets and celebrate with a feast of cookies, cake and pizza as friends and family members joined in the fun, with Butch reminding the players to "soak it in" and not shy away from the recognition that comes with their success.
Still, even with the celebration, some of the most joyous reactions to the title-clinching win came in digital form as alumni from across many eras in program history called, texted or reached out on social media. In what Butch described as an onslaught of messages, one in particular stood out from arguably the greatest player in program history mere minutes after the game ended. "It really was an onslaught of text messages, Twitter messages and phone calls," Butch said. "The coolest one was probably 10 minutes after we clinched and Taylor Mikesell FaceTimed us in the locker room. She was in the hotel getting ready to play against Illinois and she was jumping and screaming and yelling."
Mikesell, now a sophomore standout for the Maryland Terrapins, set scores of records during her time at Jackson and got the Polar Bears close to a league title, but two years after her departure, some of her former teammates and a group of promising newcomers completed the mission.
What's exciting even in the wake of hitting such a major milestone is that there are more of them out there to chase. An unbeaten league season is one, and a non-league matchup with a stout Stow team Butch says he scheduled near the end of the season precisely because the Bulldogs - who have been on the precipice of cracking the top 10 in the state poll in recent weeks - were expected to be one of the area's best squads and would serve as a great test prior to the tournament.
Next up is the district tournament for the top-seeded Polar Bears where the remaining goals to chase reside, in the form of trying to get back to the regional level and see if they can become the latest Federal League team to make it to the state tournament. It's a chance to add an even stronger exclamation point to a season already authored in all capital letters and bold font.