JACKSON TWP. It may not last long, but it’s palpable as another high school basketball season begins.
Local boys and girls teams and their coaches reunite on the floor as a group for the first time in many weeks, ready to embark on another campaign, with goals and hopes ahead. Those ambitions vary in terms of their size and magnitude, but every team wants to accomplish more than it did last time around.
For Jackson girls basketball, the quest to get back to the top of the Federal League officially began in the final week of October, when the OHSAA allows teams to begin practicing. Head coach Anthony Butch is in his fourth season leading the Polar Bears and the program has been on the uptick since he took over in 2013.
“We’re really excited because we have a good group of kids who have put in a lot of hard work over the course of the offseason,” Butch said. “All the girls have bought into what we're selling and it takes a few years to implement a culture, so we feel like we’ve done that.”
At Jackson, each season under Butch has begun with players and coaches getting frequent reminders of what their primary goal is: winning the school’s first Federal League girls basketball in nearly four decades. Each school has its own goals for the season based on how it fared the previous season, what talent it returns and the quality of its newcomers, but at Jackson, climbing back to the top of the league standings is priority number one.
“It has been almost four decades since we’ve won a Federal League title, but we’re well aware that the league is brutally good this year,” Butch said. “There are some district championship-quality teams this year, if not some state championship-caliber teams, and unfortunately we’re all in the same general vicinity so we’re in the same district tournament.”
At Jackson and virtually every other school, a fair number of holdovers return from last season, but there are usually a few new faces when each season begins. As practices get underway, the focus is a mixture of conditioning and reinforcing the ideas of philosophies on which the program runs.
The first days of practice are what Butch described as “an escalation process” that builds from seeing where players are at in terms of conditioning to determining where each player fits within the plans for the season The coaching staff spends much of its time evaluating players, talking about how to piece the roster together. After a summer spent playing for the under-17 USA Basketball national team, junior guard Taylor Mikesell is a focal point for both the Polar Bears and their opponents entering the season. Mikesell has plenty of experience on the AAU and international levels and is the leading returning scorer for a squad that won 17 or more games each of the past two seasons.
Despite missing much of the team’s offseason while playing for Team USA, Butch said Mikesell bring a boost to the team as soon as she steps onto the court.
“I think in Taylor you have a girl who made the Team USA roster and she just gives everyone confidence that we have a very good player and we can compete with anyone,” Butch said.
The relationship between veterans and younger players can be a dicey one in the first few weeks of the season for a few reasons. Having a younger player who might take away some of your playing time can create tension, as can a upperclassman’s desire to have the best season possible and shine for college recruiters, leaving less time to mentor a freshman or sophomore playing at the varsity level for the first time.
With practices and scrimmages in the first month of the season, Jackson is working to create the chemistry it will need to succeed this season. Beyond that, Butch and assistant coach Jason Hmiel will spend hours breaking down the roster, tinkering with lineup ideas and assessing the squad’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Jason was a coach at Timken for over a peace and together, we’ll tackle lots of things, our offense and defense, pressing … we’ll do a check of our entire system and try to make sure that we have a good balance,” Butch said.
Last season, the Polar Bears finished 17-7 and 7-5 in league play, leaving them behind Canton McKinley and Hoover in the Federal League standings. It was a solid encore for a 2014-15 campaign in which Jackson reached the regional finals for the first time in program history and entering the new year, there is no question that a third straight 17-win season will be a tough goal to reach given the schedule.
All three teams figure to be in the thick of the race again this season, with Perry, Green and Lake battling to get into the mix as well. But for those first few days, when the season is still new and everyone is trying to find their role and see where they fit, a unique energy exists. No games have been played, jerseys haven’t been handed out and the possibilities are plentiful for every team, no matter how the previous year ended.
Soon enough, wins and losses will start to pile up, injuries will hit and those dreams will be revised on the fly, but for now, it’s simply good to be back to basketball.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB