Jackson gearing up for tournament gauntlet

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent
Jackson's Kevin James puts up a shot during the Polar Bears' Feb. 5 game against McKinley.

JACKSON TWP. Why wait until the start of the postseason to amp up the level of competition?

The Jackson Polar Bears aren't exactly using the weeks leading up to the sectional and district tournaments to rest, recover and try to bank a few extra, easier wins before they chase postseason glory.

Their first tournament game is Feb. 24 against Ellet, but it's safe to say there's work to be done before then. Fresh off a tough, close loss to Federal League leader Canton McKinley, life is not getting easier for the purple and gold.

"You want to end on a good note, but we play a really tough team in our last game against St. Ignatius, which might be the hottest team in the state. They just beat probably the top team in the state," veteran Jackson head coach Tim Debevec said. "You also want to get into that rhythm of playing Wednesday and Saturday, Wednesday and Saturday, but you never know with COVID what could happen."

Jackson, like virtually every other team in the state, has been impacted by the pandemic both in terms of its own health and also in terms of games being canceled, postponed or rescheduled. Debevec noted that at this point in the year, if a team has to go into quarantine for two weeks, its postseason is over.

He wants to keep his 15-3 squad both healthy and playing well, even though playing well and winning against the likes of McKinley, St. Ignatius, Green and recent non-league foe Youngstown Cheney. Another potential opponent that resides in Jackson's tournament bracket is Brush, whom Jackson defeated 81-73 on Dec. 12.

The Arcs earned the fourth seed in the Northeast super district, with Jackson seeded third. However, the super district setup means the 30-plus teams in the district are scattered across three district sub-brackets, allowing the top seeds to space out and to have to face one another until later in the postseason.

It's a format the Ohio High School Athletic Association has used in other areas of the state in recent years and brought to the Northeast district for both boys and girls basketball this season.

"The state's gotta line up everything across Ohio ... Columbus and Cincinnati have had the four seeds with the super district, and they finally did that for us. Now it's not just one district where all of the Federal League teams are bunched together," Debevec said.

Under the new format, Jackson could host as many as its first four postseason games. That would mean playing sectional semifinal and final games at home, along with district semifinal and final contests.

It's a unique advantage even without the normal, raucous sellout crowds that would attend such contests. The Ellet game is one against a program Jackson has faced several times in recent years, but the Orangemen have undergone a coaching change, haven't even reached double digits in games played this season and aren't winning at the clip they have in past seasons.

As has been their custom under Debevec, the Polar Bears opted to play in the first round of the sectional tournament rather than take a bye. If they're going to have an extended postseason run, more strong play from junior guard Ben Sullivan would be a huge boost.

Sullivan led the team with 21 points in the loss to McKinley, providing another scoring option alongside senior Michael Skeriotis and junior Kevin James. Balance and depth take on added importance in the tournament, making the emergence of new contributors vital. That becomes truer and truer with each passing round of the tournament as the level of competition rises.

That dovetails with Jackson's philosophy of scheduling the state's best teams from the time it begins preseason scrimmages to its final contest of the regular season.

"If you want to be one of the best teams in the state, you have to play or scrimmage the best teams whether it's public or parochial schools," Debevec said. "That's why we scheduled scrimmages against Lorain and (Cincinnati) Moeller and games against St. Ignatius and Brush. You've got to try to compete with the best teams."

Competing with and defeating those top teams is difficult in a normal season without a pandemic. Doing so this season makes for a massively tough road, but it's the one the Polar Bears must take if they're going to get where they want to be.