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Jackson girls looking for opportunity to defend Fed crown

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP. The high school girls basketball season – at least at the moment – is about the tip off for the Jackson Polar Bears.

That, like everything else in sports and society right now, is subject to change at any second. But the schedule calls for the season to begin this Friday, even as the team's second scheduled game of the year has already been canceled due to slated opponent Austintown Fitch having its squad in quarantine for two weeks due to COVID-19-related issues.

Jackson's Emma Dretke (back) pulls down a rebound behind GlenOak's Kamryn Vance during the third quarter of their game at GlenOak in January.

It's an inauspicious start for a Jackson team first off snapping a 42-year Federal League title drought.

"After we won that first Federal League title outright, the whole bar for our program has gotten raised," eighth-year head coach Anthony Butch said. "The talent across the board is incredible and the expectations are there and now it's up to us to execute."

That execution hinges largely on junior forward Emma Dretke, who has been a force since her freshman season and has continued to round out her game over the past two seasons. Although she broke into varsity basketball as a forward, Dretke has shown an ability to step out onto the floor and shoot, as well as space the court for the rest of the offense.

In fact, Butch pointed out that the majority of the college recruiting interest his junior standout has received centers on Dretke as a wing player because of her versatility and shooting ability.

"Emma's come a long way since her freshman year. Her skill and overall basketball ability keeps improving month to month and year to year," Butch said. "She also put in a lot of work this summer to get bigger and stronger and her skill as a shooter and overall ability keeps growing."

For now, Dretke will still factor heavily into the front court. Her ability to rebound and control the paint will be big even as she fires away from the perimeter on offense. After emerging as one of the better 3-point shooters in Ohio last season as part of a team that was as dangerous from beyond the arc as any squad across the state, however, opponents will have to respect that part of her game as well.

While Dretke is a known commodity, a new face who will step into a prominent role is junior guard Hallie Ignacio, who saw limited varsity action as a sophomore but will team with Lauren Pallotta to hold down the point guard position manned capably by Kerianne Diese, who was one of the key graduation losses after last season.

The coaching staff has seen Ignacio make a big leap in the offseason and in scrimmages, which have in and of themselves been an adventure in the COVID era.

"We've had some issues ... volleyball made deep run in the tournament so we were missing three players and in our scrimmages we've been very shorthanded, plus we had three kids quarantined about a week ago," Butch said. "It was good because our secondary kids stepped up, but we have yet to play at full strength and even Friday (the season opener) we'll be missing a couple of kids due to quarantine."

In fact, the coaching staff and players are heading into the season knowing that having players – either their own or their opponents' – out of action due to COVID issues will be the norm, not the exception. For that reason, the prevailing school of thought is that depth will be the biggest determining factor in which teams have successful seasons. As Butch noted, even when Jackson has had players forced to quarantine, it's often been an issue that wasn't from an athlete doing anything wrong, but often from sitting next to a fellow student in class and later learning that fellow student tested positive for COVID.

Because they can't control or totally eliminate exposure to other students or family members who are later found to have the virus, the Polar Bears are walking the same fine line as every other team they'll play in terms of staying fully healthy. Whatever issues can be monitored and controlled by daily temperature checks – including before boarding the bus for away games – as well as wearing masks, regularly sanitizing their hands and keeping a six-foot buffer between themselves and others whenever possible, they'll do their best to control.

Beyond that, the game plan is to prepare for an uncertain ride and a season that most likely won't have every game played as originally scheduled. How the final picture looks when the season is complete, no one can say for certain. Defending a league title is never an easy task, but this truly unusual title defense is one that will look different every step along the way.