Five Jackson football players named all district

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.  In a season where it felt like every coach, player, official and volunteer who helped Ohio high school football play a complete schedule deserved some sort of recognition for their efforts, a handful of Jackson Polar Bears have been singled out by the media and by the Federal League for their performances.

With the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association All-Northeast Inland District and All-Federal League teams announced over the Thanksgiving weekend, players from both sides of the ball were honored for the Polar Bears.

Johnny Kulich (center) of Jackson tries to pick up yardage before being taken down by McKinley's Brian Pinkney (left)  and Jonah Lytle during their game at McKinley on Friday, August 28, 2020. (CantonRep.com / Scott Heckel)\r

On the All-Northeast Inland District team, junior running back Brenden Craig, senior WR/LB Brett Blauner and senior WR/DB Johnny Kulich were tabbed for the first team, while senior WR/DB D.J. Harris and junior RB/LB Griff McKinney received honorable mention recognition. Each of the five contributed in multiple areas for Jackson, which won its final three games and finished with a 5-5 record.

"Johnny Kulich was one of the best players in Stark County, but we just didn't have the record to showcase everything he did for us this season," Jackson head coach Tim Budd said. "He was our leading tackler, he had six interceptions, he led the Federal League in receptions, punted for us, returned punt for us ... he did everything and did it at such a high level. He had one of the best seasons anyone has had in my time here."

Jackson's Brenden Craig runs the ball against Lake on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. (Special to The Canton Repository / Bob Rossiter)

Like Kulich, Blauner was a versatile piece for the Polar Bears. Budd cited the senior's physical play at outside linebacker and ability to contribute at tight end and special teams on offense as important aspects of the team's progress during the season. Perhaps no player embodied the idea of progress more than Craig, a junior who went from not receiving any carries until the fourth quarter of the season opener to setting a single-game school rushing record in the season finale against Nordonia.

Craig's progress mirrored that of the offensive line, which had to reshuffle its lineup throughout the season but seemed to gain its footing late in the year.

"Brenden really came on in the second half of the year after getting almost no carries in the first game, but he just kept getting better and better and better as the year went on and really punctuated that with the single-game rushing record. A lot is going to be expected of him as a senior," Budd said.

Jackson's Brett Blauner(right) celebrates with Johnny Kulich after a Kulich touchdown in the first quarter of Central Catholic at Jackson Football.  Friday Sept. 18,  2020.

Harris, who recently committed to continue his football career for Tiffin University this fall, was the team's top cornerback and drew the assignment to cover the opponent's best receiver. That ability to slot Harris against top receivers helped the team's defensive coaching staff as it constructed the game plan, knowing they could count on Harris to be up to the challenge.

He had help on the defensive side of the ball from McKinney, who thrived after moving to middle linebacker and finished as the team's second-leading tackler. Budd credited McKinney for making the position shift during the season

Craig, Kulich and Blauner also headlined the team's representation on the all-league team, with the trio earning first team recognition there as well. Harris and senior Jayden Baker made the league's second team, while four others were tabbed for honorable mention status, with junior quarterback Hunter Geissinger, sophomore tight end Ben Holzopfel, McKinney and his brother Brenden McKinney making that list.

One disappointing side of the recognition - or at least its timing - is that the district has gone fully remote with classes at this point, meaning the honored players won't have a chance to get congratulations from their friends and classmates at school. Like many other activities in 2020, those congratulations will have to take place largely online, but after staying committed and finishing out a season that presented plenty of challenges from start to finish, the recognition is still welcome.