STARK’S GREATEST TEAMS: Polar Bears earned first team state title in school history, peaking with dominant performances in Columbus
JACKSON TWP. What a strange brew it was, this blue-collar team from the white-collar town.
There was the easy-going center, the pit-bull point guard and the mohawk-wearing forward.
The young coach, a self-described pessimistic Italian, tried to find his teams summer magic during the cold winter months of late 2009 and early 2010. Just when he had almost given up, it appeared again, leaving the opposition dazed and Ohio basketballs biggest stage shrouded in a purple haze.
The story of the 2009-10 Jackson High School boys basketball team was one of timing, unique chemistry and history made. The Polar Bears went 25-2 and won the schools first team state championship in any sport.
Seven years later, the main characters (now in their mid-20s) still revel in the memories.
I get goose bumps, center Mark Henniger said.
You get chills thinking about the moment, point guard Brad DuPont said.
Blissful, forward Josh Egner described. Its still almost like a dream.
Dreams of Columbus didnt necessarily occupy much of their thoughts entering that season.
This wasnt an all-star team of transfers and move-ins. Jackson isnt an open-enrollment school. The Polar Bears were homegrown. They were Jackson kids.
Outside of Canton city, Stark County hadnt produced a boys basketball state title since 1939.
And, really, how can a team expect to win a state title when it cant even beat its local rival? The year before, Jackson went 17-5, with three of the losses coming at the hands of Hoover, which won the Federal League and the district.
Mike Fuline, then 34, was in his fifth of six years as Jacksons head coach in 2009-10. The Polar Bears, with the senior nucleus of Henniger, Egner and DuPont, had steadily progressed through his tenure. But labeling Jackson a state title contender seemed like a stretch.
We never thought about winning a state championship because we hadnt even won the Federal League, said Fuline, now the University of Mount Union mens basketball coach. As good as that team was, we hadnt won anything.
So the Polar Bears started winning things.
The league. The brutal Canton Division I district tournament. They beat Hoover three times to exorcise some demons.
Before they knew it, they were in Columbus.
If the moment was too big for them, they didnt show it.
The morning of the state semifinal game, Fuline walked by the indoor pool at the team hotel.
Six of our guys are in there playing chicken, Fuline said. Henniger has C.J. (Julian) on his shoulders. Theyre fist fighting. You know how youre not supposed to swim the day of a game? Well, its a full-out brawl in there. I looked in and just kept walking. They were the weirdest dudes I ever met.
Julian, who was the teams defensive specialist and main agitator, put it this way: We were just a wacky team. Wed do some of the dumbest things in the locker room.
But when the lights came on, we competed.
Henniger and Julian would yawn during pregame intros, then give maximum effort once the ball was tipped.
For years, opposing fans have taunted Jackson athletes as, basically, soft rich kids who wear purple. But these Polar Bears were not entitled, and they certainly werent soft. Egner snarled when he dunked. DuPont played with an angry intensity that intimidated opponents.
Fuline believes the character of his players started with their parents.
Nothing was ever given to them at home, he said. There was accountability at home and there was a toughness about them that I can only hope that my son, growing up in Jackson, will have.
The 6-foot-6 Egner, who averaged 13.2 points and 7.9 rebounds, brought a big-play flair to Jackson with his dunks, blocks and mohawk before playing two years in college at Akron.
The 6-foot DuPont, who was built like a running back, was Jacksons engine and vocal leader. He averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 steals and a county-best 6.8 assists before going on to play at Wheeling Jesuit and Walsh University.
And then there was the 6-8 Henniger, the calm in the storm. With a steady game and a steady personality, Henniger averaged 20.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocked shots while shooting 62.3 percent from the floor. He was the Canton Repository Stark County Player of the Year and a first-team All-Ohioan. His 1,552 career points rank seventh in county history and second in Jackson history.
He was so good you took him for granted, Fuline said of Henniger, who went on to play collegiately at Kent State and professionally one season in Malta.
The rest of Jacksons starting lineup was Julian and the lone junior, Michael Shull, who provided floor spacing by averaging 9.9 points and shooting 40.5 percent from the 3-point line.
Senior David Devine was another good defender off the bench, while senior Nathan Kanam and juniors James Feller and Tyler Graening also provided minutes.
I think sometimes people saw 13 long, skinny white kids coming out and thought, These Jackson kids, well get out and outrun them, Egner said. About a quarter and a half in, they’d realize they made a huge mistake.
Jackson outscored the opposition 69.5 to 51.2 on average that season.
The Polar Bears provided a glimpse of their potential in June 2009. Their summer schedule, which took them from Wheeling, W.Va. to Ann Arbor, Mich., produced a 36-2 record against tough competition.
In the regular season, Jackson also lost just twice against Mentor 70-67 in San Diego in December and against Huber Heights Wayne 62-53 in Columbus the day after a Jan. 22 overtime win against Hoover. Still, Fuline felt like something was missing. The Polar Bears werent playing at their highest level.
That summer, leading up to it, we were unbelievable, Fuline said. What you saw in Columbus (during the state tournament), thats what we were in the summer. So youre excited. Then the season starts and you dont see that for literally 20 games.
Jackson beat Hoover 63-44 in the Federal League tournament championship game, completing a 10-0 league run.
After walloping Massillon in a sectional final, the Polar Bears tournament run became very interesting.
They were down 12 points to 10th-seed Lake at the half in a district semifinal but rallied to win 56-49.
That set up Round 3 with Hoover, this time for the district title. Jackson led 55-52 with 10.5 seconds left.
I look at them and ask if they want to foul, Fuline said. And Egner yells, We aint fouling. Guard them!
That Egner did, blocking a 3-point attempt by Hoovers Cory Veldhuizen in the final seconds to basically seal Jacksons first district title in nine years.
The Polar Bears survived quite a scare against Akron East in the regional semifinal at Akrons Rhodes Arena. In a game with 15 lead changes, Jackson hung on for a 58-56 win only after East missed twice in the final seconds.
Another two-point game awaited in the regional final. Jackson earned a trip to state with a 52-50 win over Toledo St. Johns and a freshman by the name of Marc Loving, who would become a Parade All-American and four-year player at Ohio State.
The Polar Bears celebrated. But deep down, the specter of facing Columbus Northland loomed in the state semifinal. With future NBA players Jared Sullinger and Trey Burke, Northland the defending state champion was ranked No. 1 in the country and undefeated.
I remember Bygz (late Jackson basketball manager Mike Bessler) coming up to me, Fuline said. Were still on the floor (at Akron). He says, Mikey, Gahanna beat them.
Your mindset goes from happy to Lets go to work.
Word of Gahanna Lincolns shocking 71-45 upset of Northland in a regional final spread quickly through Jacksons team.
We kind of looked around and said, ‘Were going to win states,’ Henniger said. That was really the first time we sat down and thought, Were going to do this.
Keep in mind, Gahanna was undefeated and featured three future Division I college guards Rob Brandenberg (VCU), Anthony Jackson (Stony Brook) and Stevie Taylor (Ohio).
But Jacksons confidence was at an all-time high.
And it proved valid when the Polar Bears beat Gahanna 62-50.
Egner had maybe his best game of the season, totaling 23 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.His big night included an off-the-backboard alley-oop from DuPont in the third quarter that had Jackson fans going wild.
It was pretty awesome and something Ill always remember. Im sure Josh will, too, DuPont said. Those things, when they happen, are totally not planned. You just know who your teammates are and what they are capable of.
The state final was the next night and Jackson faced Cincinnati Moeller, which had beaten Mentor in overtime in the semifinal.
Before the final, Egner asked Fuline if the team could change into their uniforms at the hotel. So the Polar Bears wore their their game gear and carried their sneakers as they rolled up to Value City Arena in vans (I dont know why I made that decision to have vans instead of a bus to this day, Fuline said).
Meanwhile, Moeller was arriving at the same time, in a charter bus, with the players wearing suits and ties.
Egner says, Look at these (expletives),'” Fuline said. I laughed and thought, Were going to kill these dudes.
Fuline liked the matchup with Moeller, and his instinct was correct. With 12,920 fans in the stands, the Polar Bears dominated the Crusaders 57-34, highlighted by a 16-0 run to begin the third quarter.Henniger had 21 points and 12 rebounds. Shull scored 17 points, while DuPont added 11 points and five assists.
After winning their four previous tourney games by a combined 14 points, Jackson won its two state games by a combined 35. It was the biggest margin by a Division I state champion since McKinley crushed Toledo St. Johns and Trotwood-Madison by a combined 48 in 2006.
Finally, Fuline saw the boys of summer.
It was refreshing because I wanted everybody to see how good they were, he said.
Jackson finished the season 22nd in USA Todays national rankings.
It didnt make sense how the pieces fit together so perfectly. But years of spending just as much time with each other on the court as off forged a group that cared for each other and sacrificed for each other.
These Jackson kids just wanted to win something.
They ended up winning the ultimate prize.
What you saw on the court was real, DuPont said. These guys are my friends that I hang out with. It just makes you proud of what we did, what we did for our community.
Reach Josh at 330-580-8426or
On Twitter: @jweirREP
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