SALINEVILLE - Jackson-Milton's boys basketball is having the kind of season where everyone just sits back and wonders how it has unfolded so successfully.
Bluejays coach Gary Nagy knows the reason and it's defense.
"It has surprised everybody," Nagy said. "The difference between this year's team and last year's team is the defense. In the past we were just worried about getting back down the court. Now we worry about playing defense."
The Bluejays took another step toward an improbable Inter-Tri County League lower tier championship by knocking off Southern 50-43 on Tuesday.
The Bluejays are 9-6 overall and 8-3 in the ITCL lower tier. At this point, they lead the league. Wellsville also has three losses, but has played two less games. Jackson-Milton closes out its league slate with games against McDonald, Western Reserve and Leetonia.
Jackson-Milton beat the two Blue Devil teams the first time around, but lost to Leetonia. That, however, was when Leetonia had a healthy Nick Altomare at point guard. The Bluejays' other two league losses came to Wellsville.
"We'll see what happens," Nagy said. "The kids are taking it one game at a time and we're not letting them think any further than that."
Jackson-Milton finished last season with a 10-11 mark which was the school's best in quite some time. In the three seasons from 2006-09, the Bluejays were 1-63.
This season started off with the previous head coach quitting right before practice was scheduled to start. Nagy, whose son Ryan and nephew Zach start on the team, was hired on the first day of practice.
Now the Bluejays have a realistic shot at claiming their first league title since the 1968-69 season.
"It's incredible," Bluejay senior Zach Nagy said. "We have a good group of guys this year. We have six seniors. We're an old line-up."
Zach Nagy showed off his stuff against the Indians (8-6, 4-5) with 22 points. He also made six of eight free throws down the stretch to preserve the win.
"We always were the underdog and now it feels good to be the one everyone is chasing after," Zach Nagy said.
The Bluejays were quick to clamp down on the Indians, but in truth Southern was not at full strength. Luke Griffith, the Indians' leading scorer, has missed the last three games with ligament damage in his ankle. He's likely to miss the rest of the regular season.
"We were competing in the league, but when you lose 17-point per game and a smart player it's tough," Southern Local coach George Whittaker said. "We're struggling a little bit right now."
The Bluejays led by as much as 12 in the first half on Tuesday, but a 7-0 run to open the third quarter had the Indians within striking distance. Four times during the second half the Indians pulled within two points only to see the Bluejays respond.
The momentum seemed to be going Southern's way with the score 41-39 with 2:46 to go in the game, but Ryan Nagy bagged a three from the corner to push the lead to five.
The Bluejays did enough the rest of the way to avoid falling back into the ITCL pack.
"We have to keep doing what we have been doing," Zach Nagy said. "That's defense. If you hold a team down, you do not have to score 100 points."
Gary Nagy said the defense has been good because of assistant coach Ron Clark's lessons. Clark had served under his son Brain during the Sebring Trojans' run of league and tournament successes in the 2000s.
"The defensive skill sets he has taught these kids have them prepared," Nagy said. "It's nice to have him with us."
Dylan Ketchum led the Indians with 16 points and six rebounds. J.J. Napierkowski added 13 points and four assists. Jared Sevek had four rebounds.
Whittaker thinks the league dynamic is very different from last season and that has made for an interesting race.
"The top six teams last year would be two or three games ahead this year," Whittaker said. "Last year's Jackson-Milton team would be included in that bunch. They lost two 1,000-point scorers to graduation."
He's not sure the Bluejays will be able to hold on, but he thinks they might have what it takes to get it done.
"Wellsville beat them by 20-something twice, but they just seem to bang around and win other games," Whittaker said.
Southern is at Lowellville on Friday.
Southern won the jayvee game 30-21. Clayton Cunningham had eight points for the Indians.
J. MILTON SCORING: Ryan Nagy 3-0-8, Zach Nagy 7-7-22, Cody Vaughn 2-0-4, John Gheradi 4-0-8, Brennen Morrison 3-0-6, Chris Dolan 1-0-2. TEAM TOTALS: 20, 7-17: 50.
SOUTHERN SCORING: Damin Beadnell 1-0-2, J.J. Napierkowski 5-1-13, Dylan Ketchum 7-0-16, Jared Shilot 1-0-2, Jared Sevek 1-0-2, Kyler Woodward 4-0-8. TEAM TOTALS: 19, 1-2: 43.
Three-point goals: Jackson-Milton 3 (R. Nagy 2, Z. Nagy), Southern 4 (Napierkowski 2, Ketchum 2).