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Early birds feast

Blue Jays get quick cushion, defeat Braves

Staff photo / Brian Yauger -- Badger senior Calena Jablonski is defended by Jackson-Milton’s Camryn Mitchell.

NORTH JACKSON — Jackson-Milton’s girls basketball team kicked off its tournament run on the right foot, riding a hot start to take down visiting Badger 56-31 in a Division IV first-round sectional contest.

“Badger may not have the best record, but they play really tough,” Blue Jays coach Pat Keney said. “We had to come in there and play with a lot of intensity and take them out of their element. They have two or three girls that are very good. We’re lucky that we get to play another game. Our next game is Saturday with Windham, so I’m excited. My kids played hard tonight.”

Jackson-Milton came out of the gates hot, opening on a 9-0 run over the first three minutes of the contest. The Blue Jays closed the quarter with a 20-4 advantage and led 32-10 at halftime.

The Blue Jays (14-7) have found their stride at the right time, posting a 9-3 record in the 2021 portion of their schedule after a bit of a shaky start.

“One, we’re running the offense better,” Keney said regarding what has improved from the early-season games. “Two, we’re playing better defense and three, they’re getting more comfortable in their shoes. I have a couple kids who have had very little varsity time, so them getting used to playing at this level was a whole new thing.”

Staff photo / Brian Yauger -- Jackson-Milton junior Chelsea Williams goes up for a shot over Badger’s Grace Popovich, left and Grace Eucker.

The team is starting to gel after a large adjustment period that came from throwing together a lineup with very little varsity experience.

“We’re excited about this,” Keney said. “We’re young. I’ve been starting a freshman, a sophomore, two juniors and a senior and it’s taken us a long time to get to this point — of them being used to each other at the varsity level and working together. That’s been a real key thing.”

The pair of juniors, Chelsea Williams and Kylie Wilson, led Jackson-Milton in scoring with 15 and 14 points, respectively. Wilson had nine first-half points. Freshman Ava Darney added eight for the Blue Jays.

The Braves ended their season at 3-10, but are returning a solid core of players to build on next season. One of those players is sophomore Addison Thompson, who led Badger with eight points.

“We have Addison Thompson, Mackenzie Graves, Katie Grexa and Jillian Miller, so we have a nice core coming back as far as underclassmen and with eighth-graders coming back, too,” Braves coach LaVell Turnage said. “I think we’ll have a different style of play next year, which I think will work for our advantage. I’m just grateful that we had a season as a whole.”

Staff photo / Brian Yauger -- Katie Grexa of Badger drives to the basket while being heavily guarded by Camryn Mitchell.

Badger graduates a class of five, including Grace Popovich, Grace Eucker and Calena Jablonski.

“I’m gonna miss this class,” Turnage said. “There are some big holes they’re leaving. They got the short end of the stick this year. If it were possible to have another year, I would love it. I’m going to miss those girls a whole lot. They’re terrific young ladies, terrific students and terrific athletes. I wish them the best in the future.”

The Blue Jays advanced to the sectional bracket final where they’ll play host to another Northeastern Athletic Conference team, Windham, at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“They’re like Badger, so they play hard and don’t quit,” Keney said. “We’re going to have to come and play hard for every minute.”

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