JACKSON TWP. When Jackson and Hoover tipped off Friday night at Jackson High School, there was plenty on the line: rivalry bragging rights, the Federal League lead and for two players, family superiority.
Jackson senior guard Kyle Nicolas and Hoover junior forward Eli Blackledge are connected by more than just athletic rivalry; the two are first cousins. Nicolas’ mother Michelle and Blackledge’s father, Hoover coach Todd Blackledge, are siblings. That means Kyle and Eli have spent plenty of time together away from sports. It just so happens that they live in neighboring communities who are each other’s biggest rival on the playing field.
“He’s always lived in North Canton and I’ve always lived in Jackson,” Nicolas said. “We’re probably been playing each other since fourth or fifth grade because he always played up a grade so he played against the kids in my grade.”
On Friday night, it was Nicholas and the Bears who got the best of his cousin and uncle. Nicholas scored 18 points, added four rebounds, four assists and three steals as the third-ranked Bears (16-1, 10-1) avenged their only loss of the season and clinched the Federal League title with a 66-49 win in a battle of two of the state's top 10 teams.
"My nephew, I'm sure proud of him," Todd Blackledge said about Nicolas after the game. "He played very well. He struggled at our place the first time we played them. We had a really hard time guarding him tonight."
Eli Blackledge scored 11 points for fifth-ranked Hoover (13-3).
Family over hoops
The Jackson-Hoover rivalry gets intense at times regardless of the sport, with fans, coaches and athletes all determined to prove that they’re the better side of the feud. While both Blackledge and Nicolas both want to win any time they face off, they’ve played one another enough times to know that regardless of the outcome, family is most important.
“We always used to play each other in travel basketball, but no matter how heated rivalry gets, it’s always family first and keeping things the same between us,” Blackledge said. “Seeing him get a ton better and grow as a player has been very cool and you don't get that too often when you get to play against a cousin and a really good friend.”
There have been some memorable moments for the two over the years, including a junior varsity game in Nicolas’ sophomore year in which Jackson trailed by three points with just a few seconds left in regulation. Following a timeout, he came off a screen and received the inbounds pass, with Blackledge forced to switch onto him at the last minute. Nicolas banked in a 3-pointer to tie the game, but Hoover won in overtime.
That same season, one of Blackledge’s coaches joked that if he dunked over his cousin in the game, the coach would buy him a steak dinner. There have been other times when Blackledge has nearly blocked his cousin’s shot in games and afterward, Nicolas told him how close he’d come to swatting the ball away.
Still, when the family gets together for holidays, sports usually gets left on the sideline. Occasionally, Blackledge and Nicolas will watch a game or shoot around outside, but any talk of Hoover and Jackson is set aside.
More rival ties
Nicolas isn’t Blackledge’s only friend who wears purple and gold.
“We talk pretty much every day … we’re really close and we like to hang out, plus he’s gotten to be pretty good friends with a couple of our players, Kyle (Young) and Logan (Hill),” Nicolas said.
One of Blackledge’s Hoover teammates, Eric Sarbaugh, has also played baseball with Young, and the rest of his teammates don’t give him a hard time about being related to a Jackson player. The cousins don’t talk as much on game days and both try to lock in on the task in front of them.
This latest edition of the Jackson-Hoover rivalry ranked as one of the most-anticipated games in the area for the season and both sides figure to be major factors in the upcoming Canton Division I district tournament. There's even a chance of a third showdown between the two arch rivals this season should they advance deep enough into the bracket. Jackson won the second round but Hoover could very well earn an equally anticipated rematch in a few weeks.
Even if that happens, though, don’t expect the final score to create any tensions at the next Nicolas-Blackledge family gathering.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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