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Jackson football looks to cap strong finish to season

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.  In dealing with a situation that has posed unprecedented challenges for high school football players across Ohio, one main question has stared down the Jackson Polar Bears.

A year that has seen the Ohio High School Athletic Association allow squads eliminated from the playoffs – which began after the sixth week of the regular season due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – to play regular-season contests following the end of their postseason run has yielded a month of games between schools looking to get as many weeks of football in as possible.

Jackson Milkanin of Jackson picks up yardage during their game against Hoover at Jackson on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

Since they’re no longer competing for district, regional and state titles, a cynic could argue that players may have a tough time finding motivation to compete.

“The question was asked would our guys pack it in after losing our playoff game and through two games, the answer’s been a definitive no,” Jackson head coach Tim Budd said. “We’ve come together, played hard and had some of our best performances of the season.”

A 42-28 playoff loss to a big, physical Brunswick team in the first round of the postseason was a tough pill to swallow for the Polar Bears, but some of the sting of that loss was mitigated by knowing that there were still games left to play.

Contests against Green, Louisville and Nordonia to close out a weird, disjointed campaign afforded Jackson seniors the chance to close out their careers with a full, 10-game senior season and gave the team’s younger players more chances to learn, grow and compete as they keep an eye on future seasons.

In downing Green and Louisville by a combined 76-28 margin, the Polar Bears (4-5) have continued the solid play they displayed in the second half against Brunswick and given themselves a chance to finish with a .500 record if they can defeat Nordonia at home this week to close out the season.

“We’ve been steadily improving since second half against Brunswick. (Against Louisville) we were get ball on perimeter when they were looking to stop the run early, open up the field and then get some big plays on the ground late,” Budd said. “Our goal is to end our season there right way, so we set the goal to win our last three games and we’re two-thirds of the way there. It’s good to be able to send our seniors out the right way.”

Two late, long touchdown runs by running back Brenden Craig helped punctuate the win for Jackson and deliver the fourth win of the season, one more for the Jackson careers of seniors enjoying one of their final chances to play together on Friday nights.

Those seniors, Budd noted, set an example this year by working hard in the offseason even though they weren’t sure if there would be a season and if they would have a chance to play. Knowing they could face the same fate as the seniors in the class of 2020, who lost their spring sports season due to the pandemic, Jackson’s seniors kept working and were ultimately rewarded with something close to a full football season.

“It’s great teams because I know there are teams in the league who have packed it in, but our school and administration worked to create opportunities for us to compete,” Budd said. “We really appreciate our administration here and that they believe in importance of extracurricular activities, especially athletics, for our students.”

The latter weeks of the season may not have been normal compared to a typical season, but one benefit they’ve brought beyond simply the chance to play more football is one last night for the seniors to play a home game. The Nordonia contest will mark the last time wearing the purple and gold helmets for all of those seniors, even if health guidelines mean there won’t be a full crowd in the stands.

It’s a senior class that has had smaller numbers during its time with the program, including an 18-man class as freshmen four seasons ago. Those who have stayed with the program have gotten to experience winning seasons and playoff appearances, both of which the Polar Bears hope to make regular occurrences going forward.

In order for that to happen, the juniors, sophomores and freshmen on the roster will have to make the most of the unusual finishing stretch to the season and build momentum going into the offseason. Injuries and illnesses have been consistent challenges this fall and that has led to some tough weeks for different units within the team. Perhaps no group has dealt with those challenges more than the offensive line, which has been forced to go with different starting lineup combinations on virtually an every-week basis and battled consistency issues as a result.

Still, challenges or not, merely navigating the season with the restrictions, rules, guidelines, revisions and regulations put in place by state, county and local health officials in order to keep players, coaches and fans safe and healthy and reaching the end of the season is a win in and of itself on some level.

For coaches, who tend to thrive on order, structure and controlling what can be controlled within the team, the past few months have been stressful and unfamiliar. The same can be said for players, but as the year winds down, Budd is both appreciative that his team has been able to play the game they love, but also with a “what if” or two as well.

“It’s a shame we had to go through everything at the beginning of the season, but now we’ve gotten this all in, it’s hard not to look back and wonder if we could have done it and had a normal season,” Budd said.

It’s a question many coaches could be asking, wondering how many of the precautions that led to things like the cancellation of scrimmages, less contact in practice, reduced crowds at games and a rearranged season schedule among other things were necessary or not. Others may argue that the successful completion of the season for most teams across the state means that those measures were worthwhile.

For both sides of that conversation, however, the current focal point is making the most of the remainder of the season and appreciating the chance for a few more kickoffs, tackles and touchdowns.