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Jackson bounces back after setback against McKinley

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.  While the Cleveland Browns made it look easy to win a big game against a rival without their head coach due to COVID-19 protocols, the Jackson Polar Bears learned first-hand the difficulty of that endeavor.

Jackson's Michael Skeriotis (left) brings the ball up the court while defended by McKinley's James McCullough during a game on Jan. 8.

A battle of two teams with undefeated Federal League records and rankings in the top 10 in the state ended with Jackson absorbing a 71-59 home loss to Canton McKinley on Jan. 8 with head coach Tim Debevec watching the district's live stream of the contest from home. The veteran head coach won't be able to return to the bench for another week and admitted that watching the game from afar was an odd experience.

"It's just something a lot of people are dealing with right now. I'm definitely not the only one and it won't be the last time someone ends up in quarantine," Debevec said. "I was watching the live stream and texting some of our coaches ... that game is supposed to be sell-out normally with 2,200 fans and there were only a couple hundred, so it was different."

That the contest lacked the normal atmosphere of a Jackson-McKinley tilt and had one of the two head coaches absent didn't change the intensity on the court. Jackson entered with a 10-0 record that may have surprised some on the heels of a 9-14 record last season, but also without one of its senior leaders, co-captain Alex Graybill.

Graybill sat out his second straight game with an ankle injury and his presence likely would have made an impact against a McKinley front court that has been bolstered by the presence of three transfers this season.

Ronnell Perie and Vernon Smith are transfers from Buchtel who have fortified an already strong McKinley roster and the Bulldogs were able to claim a big win against arguably their top challenger for the Federal League title in a game that confronted Jackson with a large dose of adversity both in the moment and moving on from the contest.

Debevec, who has had several teams post long winning streaks to start the season during his tenure, knows that how the Polar Bears respond to this setback is vital.

"The key thing is staying together. We're counting on our seniors to keep the younger guys together," Debevec said. "Sometimes an indication of a good team is how you respond from that first loss and that adversity."

In the Federal League basketball, teams running the table is rare for a reason. In both boys and girls basketball, the league is typically one of the deepest and most challenging conferences in the area.

Even when one of the league's teams makes a deep postseason run, they usually have a loss or two on their ledger from a league rival.

Graybill and fellow senior captain Michael Skeriotis are the team's veteran leaders and with their coach unable to be in the gym with the team for the time being, their leadership is an even more important component for the Polar Bears.

Assistant coach Jon Perdue and the rest of the coaching staff will continue to steer the ship while Debevec is in quarantine, although Jackson will have one less game to play without its coach because a scheduled game against Green this week was pushed back due to the Bulldogs being in quarantine as a team.

That meant the next game on the slate – the second matchup of the season against Hoover – added extra meaning to a game that's already big deal in both communities in any sport, any season and any time of year.

The Polar Bears bounced back with a hard-fought 58-54 victory to move to 11-1.

"Hoover's playing well. They've won four in a row and they've gotten a lot of their football guys back into basketball shape now," Debevec said. "Regardless of how many fans are in the stands, it's a big game and everyone gets up for Jackson, but especially Hoover. The big thing is how our guys respond to a little bit of adversity."

If they can take the lessons learned from the McKinley loss and apply them, along with getting healthy and maintaining a positive outlook, the Polar Bears have a chance to stack a few more wins before seeding for the sectional and district tournament brackets take place – and before they face McKinley again. Reversing the outcome will be a tall task against the talented Bulldogs, but adversity is simply part of the process for any team looking to contend for titles and hoist trophies.