By any way to measure it, the Jackson Polar Bears had an exceptional 2016-17 athletic season capturing a pair of state championships and their sixth straight Federal League All-Sports Trophy. The purple and gold has set and raised the bar for the other teams in the Federal League. Here is how the athletic programs at Green, Lake and Hoover are looking to catch up.
The Green Bulldogs are the new kids on the block in terms of the Federal League having completed their second season after playing for more than 50 years in the Suburban League. The city of Green is growing by leaps and bounds with new restaurants, shopping and infrastructure improvements.
The youngest member of the Federal League has adjusted to their new surroundings and rivals.
"As you can imagine, I get this question a lot about Green adjusting to life in the Federal League," wrote Athletic Director Erich Muzi in an email. "We knew the Federal League was going to be a challenge, but our athletes and coaches have accepted and embraced this new endeavor. The one thing our athletes tell us is they love playing against schools right in our back yard. These are the same athletes they grew up competing against in their youth leagues and summer programs. Secondly, the athletes and coaches respect that every game, match or contest is competitive. In this league, we have learned that we have to be prepared every day but it is the preparation and tough competition that make our program better."
Prior to entering the Federal League, Green identified four areas in which the athletic department needed to make improvements. One of those topics was facilities.
"The evaluation of our facilities is ongoing and at times fluid based on weather conditions, unexpected issues and the needs of our teams/district," wrote Muzi. "We identified three levels of facility improvements – safety/function, program builders and new facilities. So far, facility wise, Green has improved drainage on several grass fields alleviating scheduling conflicts on the high school field. We resurfaced the track and hosted the Federal League track championships. The school moved the pole vault and shot and discus areas inside the stadium and added on campus tennis courts so the teams do not have to go to Boettler Park. The school added a new junior varsity softball field and is getting new stadium turf n 2017. In total, the Green All Sports Booster Club has committed $250,000 in facility upgrades during the past four years."
To compete in the Federal League, a strong feeder program is essential for success, something that has flourished in Jackson. Muzi wrote the varsity coaches understand that building strong youth and varsity programs is a must and that many of the coaches are actively involved in working with youth on skills and drills. Since entering the Federal League, the district saw a 75 percent increase in youth camp offerings, with biggest increase being in female athletes. Muzi added the coaches have bolstered the weight lifting program.
Today’s athletes are encouraged to play multiple sports. Muzi explained Green’s philosophy in this area. "We are very proud of our athletes for their success in the classroom, community and field," said Muzi. "Over 50 percent of our athletes earn a 3.5 GPA or better every season. We also began honoring multi-sport athletes every year. "
Muzi wrote the school is working hard to improve in every sport as they do not want to be satisfied with their success.
"Every year we (the head coaches and I) establish performances goals for our program," he said.
Sports success often transcends and adds school spirit.
"Preparation is the key," wrote Muzi. "We remind our kids that how you prepare for a test in the classroom, at practice, an off season workout will determine how you approach every other important experience throughout your life. It is the discipline and motivation that will ultimately equal success. Our school spirit is a reflection of our student body."
This past year, Green won Federal League championships in boys and girls golf. Other milestones for the Bulldogs included Anne and Maria Civic being Division I doubles state runner-up in girls tennis; Abby Pearce qualifying for state in girls golf; boys golf winning a district championship and having state qualifiers; Stewart Schmidt qualigying for state in cross country; the dance team and competition cheer squad being state qualifiers; Jennifer Johnston qualifying for state in girls bowling and Peyton Krumlauf qualifying for state in boys bowling; Kaitlyn Hawkins qualifiying for state in the pole vault; girls lacrosse winning the district title; and boys swimming finishing in top 15 in the state in 200 and 400 yard medley (Josh Atkinson, Andrew Rohweder, Tyler Doerrer and Luke Miller); and Tyler Doerrer competing in the 100- and 200-yard freestyle, finishing in sixth and seventh place, respectively.
Green does have pay to play. The cost is $75 per high school sport and $50 per middle school sport. There is no family cap.
The Village of Hartville and Lake Township also continues to grow. The high school and middle school complex continues to increase in size and a tunnel allows students to go under Market Avenue to get too many of the high school facilities – the stadium, soccer fields, wrestling and cross country areas.
Still, Lake remains the smallest of the Federal League. How do the Blue Streaks continue to reach heights in a strong league?
"While we are smaller than the other Federal League schools, we are not considerably smaller than most," wrote Lake Athletic Director Joe Bogdan. "We have a very good base of home grown athletes who are willing to do their part. We have a wonderful group of education-based coaches who work well together and are good for kids. They create systems of skill development and team work. Winning and losing are not choices you can make. When a good group of kids comes through the program, they are surrounded by knowledgeable coaches who are good to kids and will be ready for success. And more importantly, when a less skilled group comes through, they will still be able to maximize their potential, will still be asked to work hard and will still be surrounded by people who will care about them."
With Lake continuing to grow and expand, Bogdan offered an evaluation of their facilities.
"We continue to care for and improve on our sports facilities," said Bogdan. "You can never have enough fields and courts, but at some point, you must work with what you have in front of you and make a plan that works as well as possible. We have first-class facilities for our athletes thanks to the support of our community."
Success at the high school level starts at the youth level.
"Lake takes on an important role in youth sports," wrote Bogdan. "There is no recreation department in the district and all youth programs look to the school to share facilities. We are happy to provide whatever support we can. I believe that every youth organization practices and/or plays on at least some of the Lake schools facility. Our coaches are very involved in trying to support the lower levels. The coaches are good mentors for the parent led youth teams to keep them focused on fundamentals instead of wins and losses."
Bogdan wrote that there are opportunities for kids to work out year round in a particular sport, but he said the coaches are also good at recognizing that kids need time off. Bogdan wrote that he and his coaches are believers in letting kids play whatever sports they want, which includes playing multiple sports.
"I can’t think of very many sports where no matter what is happening between you and your opponent, it is not to your advantage to be stronger and more skilled in one," said Bogdan. "If we can get enough kids to buy into that, you become better."
Bogdan said to his knowledge Lake has never won the All-Sports Trophy. The only team last year to win a district championship was boys basketball.
"Success in sports adds to the culture you are trying to establish," said Bogdan. "Lake is proud of its success in academics, the arts and athletics. Being successful in those areas increases the amount of participation and buy-in from the community and students and helps to fuel the future."
Lake does have pay-to-participate fees as well. The cost is $125 for high school and $75 for middle school. The second and third sports are free.
The center of town sits at the intersection of East Maple Street and Main Street. The Hoover Company, Huntington Bank, the YMCA and several shops sit at different corners of the intersection. The school and the town were tied to the former Hoover Company, which was a community partner that provided land and money to the district.
As the city of North Canton rebrands itself, so are its athletic teams. Athletic Director Tim Walker explained how the Vikings are working hard to catch Jackson on the athletic fields.
"In general, these run in cycles," said Walker, who has been the athletic director for one year. "Winning and losing comes and goes. We have 26 varsity sports at Hoover. The past few years, we have a little more turnover in the coaching ranks than usual. But we have a good group of coaches. Most of the coaches are approaching being here for five years. Any new coach is always going to have a learning curve. Coaches are now in different positions. If a coach coached at a lower lever, now they are running the program, dealing with all the parents. There is an adjustment."
Walker gave the example of the football program. Last year, the team won five games. That was the second most wins in the past seven years.
North Canton is in the process of evaluating all their schools and facilities.
"As a former coach, you never have as much as you want," said Walker. "We have been carrying that lens as we looked at our facilities in the district. With the new schools, we are looking at athletic facilities as well. We are in the early stages. We do need more fields and more gyms."
Like most schools, the orange and black are developing success through the youth and middle school programs.
"The coaches are involved with the youth programs but every situation is unique," said Walker. "Some coaches can get involved in the middle school level with basketball, football and track. Other sports like soccer can’t really get to the kids until high school. All coaches are trying to connect. The coaches work hard trying to reach kids at the club level. This has all changed in the last 10 to 15 years. "
Walker said some North Canton kids play multiple sports while other kids concentrate on one sport participating in travel leagues and doing outside condition. He said it does vary sport to sport.
All schools continue to try to get better in each sport they participate in. At North Canton, boys and girls tennis and swimming have been strong for several years. The wrestling program is starting to make a comeback.
"We are making progress by and large to get better," said Walker. "Once you make it to the top, the challenge is to stay at the top. If you are middle of the road, the challenge is to get to the top. This year, our girls basketball and softball teams did not win the league title yet they both won district championships and the softball team won a regional championship. The Federal League is the best league in the state."
The Vikings finished second in the All-Sports Trophy. The last time North Canton won the trophy was in 2006-07. In the early 2000s, Hoover won the trophy six times. This year, North Canton won Federal League championships in girls swimming, girls bowling and and boys tennis. Girls basketball won a district title, softball won a district and regional title and boys lacrosse was regional runner-up. In swimming, Nate Mullens won the 50-meter freestyle and Matt Peare won his second state pole vault championship in three years.
"Our success on the field adds to pride and school spirit," said Walker. "Athletics is public success and adds to school pride. Those accomplishments benefit the school and community. But athletic success should not over shadow the other successes at Hoover.
"We are excited for Jackson’s success this year, they had a unique run. But that makes everyone better in the long run in the Federal League. We are happy for their success but also happy for us to keep working hard and improving."