Jackson girls hoops in position to make run

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.   The pace has quickened for the Jackson Polar Bears and doesn't look like it will slow down any time soon.

Due to COVID-19-related schedule changes throughout the month of December, January is set to be an extremely busy month for the defending Federal League champions and this week is a microcosm of the scheduling madness.

Halle Ignacio (left) of Jackson reaches in for the ball while defending Maddy Knop (right) of Perry during their game at Perry on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.

With three key league games in a six-day span and four league contests in 10 days when you include a tilt with Lake next week, it's fair to say Jackson's status in the Federal League race will largely be determined by this stretch.

"That's how it is with makeup games in a COVID world. These are games we scheduled earlier in season that just got pushed back," eighth-year head coach Anthony Butch said. "It's another added component to the craziness of this season. We tell our girls that this is similar to when they play rapid-fire events in AAU basketball where they play all the time, maybe four games in three days, so the players should be used to it and it's going to be more of a challenge for the coaches in terms of creating game plans."

Battling Perry, Green, Hoover and Lake in quick succession means playing one-third of their league schedule in a mere 10 days, but the Polar Bears aren't exactly coming off a leisurely holiday break.

Their most recent league game came four days before Christmas, but in between that contest and this week, they've battled some of the toughest non-league foes possible.

"It's going to be a tough stretch, but we closed out 2020 with Newark, who is arguably the top team in state, and were within five in the fourth quarter, then played Solon and pulled one out against them," Butch said, noting that a win over Massillon to ring in the new year was another momentum booster for his team.

The Newark loss was a tough one to digest, but getting a 66-58 win over a Solon program that has been a powerhouse in the region and state in recent years was a great rebound outing for Jackson. Not only is Solon a top team that showed Jackson where it stood relative to the best squads in the area, but they've also been a postseason nemesis for the Polar Bears during the past five years.

"Both times we've made to the regional finals, which were only two times in school history for us, they knocked us out, so we them put on the schedule to get look at them ahead of tournament time," Butch said. "To be able to get a win against them, we told the kids this is a win you should feel good about."

Playing Solon and Newark, combined with games against Rocky River Magnificat and Berlin Hiland at next weekend's Classic in the Country XVIII tournament, is part of a concerted effort to put together a demanding slate that will push the Polar Bears to grow and rise to a higher level ahead of the postseason.

Junior forward Emma Dretke leads the team with 16.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, with sophomore forward Lauren Pallotta contributing 12.0 points per game for an offense averaging 51.4 points per game entering this week.

Getting to two regional finals in Butch's first seven seasons at the helm, Jackson is seeking to continue the upward trajectory and make a trip to the state tournament just as league rivals Canton McKinley, GlenOak and Hoover have in the past decade-plus. Of course, after losing to the Vikings in the sectional tournament last year and dropping the two rivals' first matchup this season, it's fair to say Jackson will be as motivated as possible to take on their neighborhood nemesis this time around.

"With Jackson and Hoover, it doesn't matter what sport or setting you're competing in, it's always going to have a little extra to it," Butch said. "This will allow us to see if we've improved from where we were earlier in the year. I do feel like we're a different team now."

At 7-3 and 3-2 in league play, Jackson is in a good position to make a run in the second half of the season. However, they're also in a precarious one with the league race, knowing another loss would make it extremely difficult to vie for the title. They won't have the benefit of many off days and rest time between games, with the season setting up as a sprint to the finish.