JACKSON TWP. It has been a different kind of season for the Jackson Polar Bears.
They've been atop or fighting for the top spot in the Federal League for the past decade and have regularly harbored state championship aspirations, but this winter has brought a climate change of sorts as they undergo the sort of challenging season that all of their Federal League rivals have faced over the same span or are facing this season.
"It's been a difficult year so far, but I feel like we've made a lot of progress and we're been in a lot of close games, so our young guys get that experience," senior Jake Byers said. "We have to learn how to finish games ... we've been in a lot of games that have been decided by five points or less."
Byers is one of three seniors on the roster and for a team that entered the year knowing it had a lot of talent lost to graduation from last season, it was bound to be an uphill battle.
Add in a roster than has undergone changes during the season and you have an even steeper uphill climb for the Polar Bears.Their 6-13 start has seen them struggle against an unforgiving schedule, leaving Byers and fellow senior Jake Aleman as part of a small group of veterans doing their best to keep the team in a positive frame of mind.
"We talk to the guys and we have good relationships with them," Aleman said. "We have breakfast as a team at Buehler's on Saturday and watch film."
Getting together for meals and trying to build chemistry are small steps that the seniors hope will benefit the team not just this season, but beyond. They've seen that sort of leadership from past senior classes and know that a big part of the reason Jackson has had the sort of sustain success it has enjoyed in recent seasons is a willingness to invest in the program by each successive senior class.
Their leadership figures to be a big factor down the stretch as the regular season winds down and the tournament begins with a first-round matchup against Massillon on Feb. 26.
"We know (winning) the Federal League is out of the question now, but the one thing we can work toward now is to make a run come playoff time at sectionals and districts," Byers said. "The district is our goal now. Everyone makes tournament, so we want to make a run."
Although they won't be entering the postseason as one of the top seeds in the district as they have in years past, but Byers, Aleman, senior guard Drew Boggs and others have been in the program and been part of past tournament runs, so they've learned firsthand what it takes to succeed in the postseason.
Applying those lessons may not bridge the gap entirely between the Polar Bears and the top teams in their district, but it could come in handy in the sort of close game that has been their new normal this season.
"The most important thing is get into a rhythm because we want to show these guys we're able to compete with anyone," Aleman said.
Perhaps fittingly, one of Jackson's biggest rivals over the past decade both in the league and postseason, has joined the Polar Bears in having a bit of a down season this winter. Lake, whose games with Jackson have often served as de-facto league title games over the past few years, is likewise below .500 in league play as Green and Canton McKinley have battled their way to the top of the standings.
Byers admitted he and his fellow seniors have had a tough task in front of them all year long, but are striving to do it to the best of their abilities.
"This year I've definitely stepped up into bigger leadership role and that's been the main aspect this year," Byers said. "Last year we had four great seniors who led the team and this year we have three seniors. Whether we're leading by example or being vocal, our roles have expanded."
His job has often been to guard the opposing team's best offensive player, while Aleman has seen a bigger role on offense and Boggs has taken on some of the ball handling responsibilities on offense. It continues to be a work in progress, with progress the key word from here on out for this season's edition of the Polar Bears.