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Jackson volleyball back to familiar place after capturing district title

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP.  After one year away, Jackson volleyball is back in the place it has been so many times.

The Polar Bears are once again headed to the Division I regional tournament, vying for a spot in the state tournament and the program’s first state title. This time around, it’s an undefeated Jackson team that enters regional play, bringing a 23-0 record and Federal League title with it.

Louisville at Jackson Volleyball; Division I District Final; Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Third-year head coach Cortney Goodwin brings a young team into a regional semifinal matchup with Nordonia, one year removed from falling short of the regional level.

“It was really an accomplishment … we have pretty much the same team back from last year and to get here shows all of the hard work the players did in the offseason to get where we are now,” Goodwin said. “We had a very young team last season, so to be undefeated at 23-0 shows how hard they worked.”

The program was a regular at the regional and state levels in recent years under former head coach Jeff Walck and made it to the final eight in the state in Goodwin’s first year. For players who grew up in the district and were used to seeing the varsity team ranked among the best in the state, not winning a district title last fall was a tough experience.

Wanting to add their own chapter to the Jackson volleyball legacy was a driving factor for the team’s returning players this season, Goodwin said.

“They kind of felt defeated a little bit from last year, so to be able to put their stamp on it this year and add to the program’s legacy was big,” Goodwin said.

After a six-plus season Federal League undefeated streak came to an end a couple of year ago, it was clearer than ever that the rest of the league was steadily raising its game and pushing Jackson to do the same if it wanted to keep the top spot. That was as true as ever this fall and despite an undefeated league mark, the Polar Bears had to walk a tough path to get there.

Green, which emerged as a top challenger, reached the district final in its own bracket and fell in five sets, proving that the Bulldogs were as solid as their regular-season record indicated.

Emily Ragon (2) of Jackson goes for the kill while being defended by Kendal Loy (23) of Louisville during their Division I district final at Jackson on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Playing that tough league slate was one aspect of being prepared for the tournament for Jackson and while their non-league slate was also difficult, Goodwin admitted that facing Green, GlenOak, Hoover and the rest of the league was an exercise in being ready every single match.

“Every game we had to play our best and we were challenged,” Goodwin said. “It’s not like we just walked through anyone and we couldn’t go through the motions. Every game we had to be mentally and physically prepared.”

Pointing to reasons for the team’s success and ability to keep its undefeated start going isn’t easy because there are multiple options, but Goodwin believes that depth is one of the biggest reasons. For a team that doesn’t have the sort of big-name, standout athletes it has had in the past, having a rotation of 15 to 16 players all capable of playing at a high level has made a big impact.

That depth has proven valuable in the postseason so far, as Jackson has yet to drop a set in sweeping Canton McKinley, Boardman and Louisville. It should continue to be beneficial in a regional bracket stacked with Nordonia, Painesville Riverside and Parma Padua Franciscan.

“We have a lot of players who buy into what we want them to do and every practice it’s a challenge to get a spot in the rotation,” Goodwin said. “We have 15 or 16 girls and no one can take a day off at the office like we say in practice, whereas most teams rely on seven or eight girls.”

The team had gotten leadership from many different sources, according to Goodwin, with senior setter Ally Stanislawski, senior outside hitter Ally Woolbert and sophomore outside hitter Leena Patibandla all contributing in that area of the game. Stanislawski and Woolbert are two of the four current players who were part of the rotation two years ago for the last Jackson team to reach the regional level and Goodwin believes that their biggest contribution this week could well be in keeping the team calm and relaxed.

With a roster that still has plenty of underclassmen, seeing the veterans not anxious and going about their business in a normal fashion is what the coaching staff believes will set a good tone. Having been there before, the expectation is for the veterans to remember the feeling of not just playing in a regional tournament game, but winning one.

As the intensity ramps up with each successive game, a team that has overcome each hurdle on the way to 23 straight wins knows it will get progressively tougher to keep that streak alive. In a bounce back season for a proud program, keeping that rebound going for as long as possible and pushing for a spot in the final four in the state is the next mission.