Regional trip validation of Jackson re-emergence

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON  Every inch of progress has been more difficult to come by over the past years for teams trying to play sports in the midst of a pandemic while also dealing with all of the normal challenges of a season.

That element is a large part of why the district championship the Jackson Polar Bears captured on Saturday night was extra special for everyone in purple and gold.

A 51-47 win over Walsh Jesuit gave Jackson its 10th district title in program history and 10th-year head coach Tim Debevec knows firsthand how tough it is to make it to the regional level.

"It was special especially in a year like this, going from 9-14 last year to 23-3 now. They're all special and it's hard to win a district title," Debevec said. "The past 10 years, we've made the district final eight times and won four ... after being one and out last year (in the tournament) and then seeing all the hard work our guys did this offseason pay off was rewarding."

Owen Woolbert, right, of Jackson  drives to the basket in front of Erik Stern of Walsh Jesuit during the second half of their Division I District Final game at Jackson High School Saturday, March 6, 2021 in Jackson Township, Ohio.

The uncharacteristic losing season from last year provided immediate and powerful motivation for all of the team's returning players and getting back to the regional semifinals one year later is validation that the offseason efforts, tough scrimmage schedule and difficult regular-season slate were that the Polar Bears needed. Being one of the final 16 Division I teams left in the tournament is a point of pride even as the focus shifts to the daunting task of battling an undefeated Mentor team in the regional semifinals.

In pinpointing the reasons this year's squad has enjoyed the success it's had, Debevec pointed to a few different areas.

"The three seniors we had last year really helped these young guys ... they didn't get the wins they would have liked, but they helped these younger guys to be great leaders this year," Debevec said. "Another key thing is we've had good balance all year and been steady all year."

The veteran coach can readily rattle off a long list of contributors for a team that doesn't have the proverbial star power of some recent Jackson teams, but has gotten contributions from a plethora of playmakers such as Michael Skeriotis, Kevin James, Alex Graybill, Mack Kistler, Johnny Kulich, Owen Woolbert, Ben Sullivan and more.

Ben Sullivan, right, of Jackson drives to the basket past Ben Ligan of Walsh Jesuit during the second half of their Division I District Final game at Jackson High School Saturday, March 6, 2021 in Jackson Township, Ohio.   [Karen Schiely/Beacon Journal]

Players like Woolbert, a sophomore whose size (6-foot-8) makes him valuable on the interior, could be starters for other programs but have found ways to contribute while they wait their turn to start behind more experienced players.

Every single member of the rotation has been needed at some point against a schedule that has tested Jackson from the preseason all the way through the first four games of the tournament.

"Between our scrimmage schedule and our tough league and non-league schedules ... we scrimmaged (Cincinnati) Moeller and Gahanna Lincoln and Medina, who are all still in the tournament; we played St. Ignatius and they're still in the tournament; we played Hoover twice and they're still in; we played Youngstown Chaney up in Cleveland and they're in (the Division II) regionals," Debevec noted.

Hoover in particular still being in the tournament along with Jackson is another nugget of proof for those who have long argued that the Federal League is one of, if not the best leagues in the state. The Vikings were not at the top of the league standings, but have rolled to regionals along with their arch rivals from Jackson.

Debevec noted that the decision to turn the Northeast district into a super-seeded, multi-district bracket where teams can choose between multiple districts allowed Federal League teams to space out and not all be in the same district. He theorized that if the super-seeding arrangement continues, it's possible that there will be more years like this, where more than one of the league's teams is among the final 16.

Of course, after digging out of an 11-point hole in the first half against Walsh, claiming a district title on their home floor and cutting down the nets in front of their home crowd, the Polar Bears don't exactly get to take a victory lap. Their reward? A 23-0 Mentor team scoring buckets in bunches.

"There's no easy win now ... Mentor is 23-0 and they're averaging 80-plus points a game. Now, it's about guys making shots and also staying healthy," Debevec said, with a nod to the ongoing quest to avoid COVID-19 issues within a team as the pandemic remains a very real part of everyday life. "You've got to be ready every night, stay healthy and stay zoned in. We want to make sure our guys get enough shots in and get enough rest because there are 16 teams left and you're only two games away from getting to Dayton."

It's a long way from where last season ended for the program and there's no question that reaching this point has required work, perseverance and the ability to overcome the challenges of a most unusual year and season. The question now is how much further the Polar Bears can go.