Jackson girls in good shape as postseason nears
JACKSON TWP. The Ohio High School Athletic Association ruled recently that for the remainder of the season, boys and girls basketball teams would be allowed to play up to two games in a single day as a way to catch up on contests missed due to COVID-19 issues.
The decision caught the attention of coaches, players and administrators across the state, including veteran Jackson head coach Anthony Butch. His Polar Bears began this week at 10-6 and aside from a 10-day stint in quarantine earlier this month, they've largely been able to avoid major schedule disruptions due to the pandemic.
Only four players have played in every game this season, with junior forward Emma Dretke and sophomore guard Lauren Pallotta leading the team in scoring at 16.9 and 10.4 points per game, respectively. Dretke and senior guard Alayna McMullen top the squad in 3-pointers made, with McMullen making 41 percent of her looks from long distance.
"My initial thought hearing about it (the OHSAA decision) was that Jackson girls basketball was going to pass on that idea, but we also haven't had the big shutdowns a lot of other teams have had," Butch said. "It's really designed for weekends to let teams play a morning game and an evening game, with the thinking being that in the AAU world, these kids play multiple games in a day all of the time."
With 16 games under their belts and four still slated prior to the postseason, the Polar Bears have largely been able to play consistently since the outset of the season.
Not only play, but they've consistently played highly-ranked foes and found themselves in a lot of close games. Taking on the likes of Solon, Newark, Berlin Hiland and GlenOak (twice) has put them through their paces and provided early looks at the level of competition they'll have to overcome once the tournament starts.
'That's the goal, to peak at the right time, and I don't think this team has peaked yet," Butch said. "We've played a really tough schedule the last month, with Newark and Hiland in non-league games and then taking GlenOak, which is unbeaten in the Federal League. to overtime and losing a heartbreaker there."
Taking close losses against very good teams doesn't guarantee future success and growth, but that's the hope for Jackson. Its tournament route will look different this season because of a change to the format for sectional and district play. In the past, higher seeds got to host in the sectional semifinals and finals.
This time around, the area's Division I teams will be thrown into a 36-team super region that will then be divided into three districts. All games through the district final will be played at the top seed's home venue, with no neutral sites until the regional semifinals.
With three different districts across which the seven Federal League teams can scatter, Butch foresees a departure from postseasons of recent vintage, when all or nearly all of the league's seven teams were in the same bracket and saw each other in the opening rounds of the tournament.
"With the 36-team super district divided into three districts and the top seeds hosting through district final, that's something us Federal League coaches have fought for over the past nine years at least," Butch said. "I'd be very surprised if you saw all of the Federal League teams end up in the same district."
With the few remaining games before the postseason gets underway, the quest for Jackson is not only winning games, but ironing out any issues that could cause problems in a tournament game. Its 5-4 start in league play includes a pair of close losses to GlenOak and another to Hoover, with the latter being a result the Polar Bears have a chance to avenge in a rematch next month.
Playing as many as three games a week for the remainder of the regular season – albeit with no two-game days – promises to be taxing. Whether that meat grinder offers any long-term benefits remains to be seen.
"You hope to get repetitions of seeing what it takes to win in those crucial moments, that extra focus extra intensity you need to come out on the right side in those situations," Butch said. "For us, the two big things are decision making with a focus on eliminating turnovers and defensive intensity."
Playing so often and sprinting toward the tournament may not be ideal, but succeeding under stress has become a must in all walks of life during these challenging times. It's a race into the unknown, with the main constant being change.