JACKSON TWP. It took just four games for the Jackson girls soccer team to get a clear picture of where it stands in relation to some of the best teams in the state of Ohio.
The Polar Bears' early slate not only included two state powers in Strongsville and Walsh Jesuit, but an early tilt with arch rival Hoover in a matchup that always brings out the most competitive nature in both sides.
The result through four games is a 1-2-1 record, one that has shown veteran head coach Frank Gagliardi and his team where they stand and what it's going to take to get where they want to go this season.
"As much as we do usually try to set a strong schedule, we usually don't open with Strongsville and Walsh right away," Gagliardi said. "That was probably a bit of a hurdle in the girls' minds at the beginning."
Those games, Gagliardi noted, were a harsh lesson in the level of intensity it takes to win against the best of the best and what made them even more challenging is the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic prevented teams from having a normal preseason.
Without the standard slate of scrimmages and normal preparation that goes into getting ready for a campaign, the Polar Bears entered one of the toughest early schedules in the area with a bit less fine tuning than they're used to in an average year.
Losses to Wadsworth and Strongsville left them searching for answers, but rebounding with a win over Hoover and a tie against Walsh showed that progress had been made.
"We started off with Hoover had to go over and play on turf, which we're not used to, but we defended well," Gagliardi said. "We need to be a bit more organized and had a few more looks we can put away."
Senior Kirsten Throckmorten scored the lone goal in the 1-0 win over Hoover and if the Walsh game is any indication, the rest of the offense may be finding its way as well. Throckmorten added an assist in the Walsh contest, helping her team rally from a 3-1 deficit to earn a tie.
Having spent more than two decades on the bench, Gagliardi admitted that through four games, he's seen moments in games where both sides have shown the effects of the lack of a full preseason.
"We just played Walsh... they might be down a bit as far as athleticism from where they normally are, but you see overall that decision making isn't as strong (as in most years). I talked to (Walsh coach) Dino (McIntyre) and he said the same thing," Gagliardi said.
Coming off the Walsh game and into a week with scheduled matchups against Federal League rival Lake and then North Royalton, the Polar Bears won't have much time to catch their breath. Prior to the season, with several scheduled games against teams in counties where health officials recommended a delayed start to the season for sports such as soccer and football, Jackson had the potential to have several games canceled or rescheduled, but thanks to revisions in those guidelines, so far the slate has remained intact.
For the rest of the month, that will largely mean weeks with at least one league game and one non-league game, keeping Jackson busy and forcing the Polar Bears to use the regular season as more of a tune-up for the tournament than normal.
One area where Gagliardi is looking for more growth is the defensive end of the pitch, where a unit that has allowed multiple goals in three of four games is looking to round into form and help junior goalkeeper Rachel Noebe settle in during her first season as a varsity starter."They've started before ... three out of the four are juniors and one is a senior, so we don't really have any excuses as far as experience," Gagliardi said of the back line of his defense. "Even against Strongsville we had some things we needed to do better and we need to continue to tighten things up and improve our organization ... that includes all 11 (players on the field)."
He added that although Noebe is a first-time varsity starter who served as a backup last season, knowing the character and quality of player between the pipes helps in having confidence that the defense will level up as the year goes on. That would be welcome news for a team that has had a near-monopoly on the league title during Gagliardi's 20-plus years at the helm and is intent on keeping its chokehold on the top spot.
In an unusual season full of plot twists, that would be a welcome dose of consistency.