JACKSON TWP. As the season winds down, every area high school basketball team stares down the reality that it has a very small amount of time left together as a group.
The Jackson Polar Bears, who finished the regular season 9-13, enter the postseason seeded 10th in the Canton Division I district and are in the unusual position of playing on the road in the first round of the sectional tournament.
The starts tonight at No. 7 Massillon.
It's a challenge they haven't faced in a long time as a program and veteran head coach Tim Debevec knows his team is in a tough spot.
"I've been coaching for 27 years and you want every group to have a long tournament run," Debevec said. "You just try to take the same approach as during season, to embrace it, stay positive and try to keep the guys together."
While preparing for the tournament and the pressure cooker it presents isn't easy, Debevec likes what he's seen from his team in practice the past few weeks. Even in the midst of a difficult season, coaches want to see consistent effort, focus and concentration from their players and he feels like that has been the case from his squad.
The results on the court have been positive, with Jackson winning three of its last four games.
"We beat a good Hoover team that beat us pretty bad on our court earlier this season and our only loss in those four games was to a team that was ranked seventh in the state in Division IV," Debevec said. "We have three seniors who are very special to our program and I really appreciate what they've brought to our program."
The margin has been thin for the Polar Bears all season long, as they've replaced five starters from last season and lost seven games by five points or less.
The tournament affords a fresh start in some ways, but that doesn't make the path any easier.
"We've got two teams in our district ranked in the top 10 in the state and then you've got McKinley, who's 12th," Debevec said. "The tournament is another season though so you keep plugging and keep going.
The reality of a one-and-done format that ends the season of any team that loses adds extra emotion to the process and each practice, bus ride and team meal have more of an edge to them.
Yet as the year winds down, Debevec lows that his team has battled and done its best even if the results haven't been what they hoped for.
"They've done everything they can ... it's like life, where you have ups and downs, and our guys have learned a lot of lessons on and off the court," Debevec said.
He noted that the seniors have been part of two Federal League titles and a district championship, so despite their difficult senior season, they've created plenty of great memories over the course of their careers.
"It took us a little while to gel and find our stride than I thought it would, but we're shooting the ball better and we have to continue to shoot it better," Debevec said.
It's been a season that has pushed the purple and gold and for both the seniors and underclassmen, it's forced them to grind out as many wins as possible while keeping an eye on growing and getting to where they want to be.