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Jackson football ends on record-breaking high note

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP. Over the final three weeks of the season, the Jackson Polar Bears knew they weren’t playing for any league, district, regional or state titles.

Their postseason run has ended and at 2-5 entering the closing stretch of their campaign, their mission was closing out the year on a winning note and playing for one another regardless of what was at stake. The result was a three-game win streak to end the season, one that left them 5-5 and sent their seniors out with a win in their final home game in a Jackson uniform.

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

“I was proud of our guys. They continued to work and get better even when they were eliminated from the playoffs,” Jackson head coach Tim Budd said following a 40-7 win over Nordonia to end the season. “We had a good week of practice and it was important for our seniors to close out their careers well.”

Well might be an understatement considering the emphatic way the Polar Bears defeated Nordonia. Not only did they win by 33 points in their home finale, but they did so on the strength of a record-setting game from junior running back Brenden Craig. Craig, running behind an offensive line that has dealt with injuries and shifting lineup combinations all season long, gashed the Knights for a single-game school record 356 yards and four touchdowns. It goes down as the second-best single-game rushing yardage total in Stark County history.

Craig turned in touchdown runs of 68, 63, 62 and 18 yards, powering an offense that turned in some of its best outings of the fall in the final three games. Considering that Craig, along with junior quarterback Hunter Geissinger and a slew of other players on both sides of the ball are underclassmen who can return next season, the strong finish figures to give Jackson solid momentum heading into the offseason.

“Our line did a nice job of creating holes. Brenden is so fast that if he has even a little crease, he can score from anywhere on the football field on any play and he got good blocking from the line,” Budd said. “The extra practices we got in were important and you could see our younger players in practice getting better.”

Budd noted that the team started a pair of sophomore offensive tackles against Nordonia and with multiple offensive linemen and skill position players set to return next season, the foundation is in place for an improved attack.

Add in three returning starting linebackers and multiple defensive backs and it’s easy to see the makings of a team that can use its strong finish and turn it into a promising 2021 campaign. Of course, simply playing the entire 2020 season is something not to be taken for granted.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, each game was no sure thing until it kicked off. As an example, Jackson’s penultimate game of the season came against Louisville and one week after the Polar Bears routed the Leopards, Jackson’s Federal League rival Green had its scheduled contest against Louisville canceled the day before the game due to a positive COVID test within the Louisville program.

Jackson’s ability to play a full 10-game season hinged on a range of factors, some within its control and other dependent on its opponents staying similarly healthy and adhering to health guidelines and protocols.

“I’m appreciative our administration thought so highly of all extracurricular activities and the role they play for our students, including sports,” Budd said. “One one hand, 5-5 isn’t good enough, but on the other hand, it feels like 10-0 just because we were able to play all of our games.”

Across the area and the state, the disparity between teams in terms of how many games each school was able to play underscores the effects the virus has had. But whether a team played six games or 13, simply having a season was a victory in and of itself on some level.

So even as the sadness of the season being over set in after the Nordonia contest, Budd saw a team that appreciated what it had done the past few months. While the three losses by identical 14-13 margins early in the season will likely stick with the players and coaches, leaving them wondering how different their season could have been with just one or two bounces of the ball, the veteran coach saw his team respond well in the homestretch.

“We took the approach that going to work hard in these last three weeks and play these games out,” Budd said. “We had fun and good to see our guys enjoy some success. They bought into this back on June 1, when there was no guarantee would play any games. There was excitement that we had played well at the end of the year, as well as sadness that it was over … but we learned a lot about persevering.”

Among all of the hard lessons the pandemic has brought for people in various walks of life, persevering and figuring out a path forward is one that seems especially common to a wide range of people. It may not have been the season the Polar Bears would have wanted in an ideal world, but in a year where few things have been close to ideal and unusual has become the new normal, closing out a disjointed season on a winning note and finishing strong is a valuable takeaway.