BATH TOWNSHIP — As the snowflakes began to melt and signs of warmer weather became evident, John Kroah started focusing on one particular opponent that shattered his heart last season.
That would be the Hudson girls lacrosse team.
"I circled that game in the very beginning of that calendar because I know I’m going to see them during the season and I know I’m going to see them in that tournament," Kroah said.
The veteran head coach’s fixation on the Explorers certainly proved to be worthwhile.
That’s because his Polar Bears are heading to the Final Four.
Top-seeded Hudson’s stellar season came to a stunning end when it suffered a gut-wrenching 11-10 overtime loss to second-seeded Massillon Jackson in the Division I, Region 2 title match.
The contest took place at Revere High School’s Joseph F. Pappano Stadium in Bath Township.
With the win, the Polar Bears (13-7) advanced to the state semifinals for the second time in three years.
Jackson was denied a trip to the Final Four last spring after a 12-10 loss to — wait for it — the Explorers in the Region 2 title match.
As for Hudson (14-4), which also lost to the Polar Bears 13-10 during the regular season, this defeat was particularly tormenting.
The Explorers controlled the first half and were up 10-5 with a little more than 22 minutes left.
And then, just like that, it all came crashing down in the most cruel fashion possible.
When Chelsea Debevec scored not long after the draw took place to start the overtime period, the Polar Bears’ improbable comeback was completed.
Jackson, which won 13 of the 22 draws, decided to simply go right at Hudson’s defense with hopes of scoring or forcing a penalty.
Unfortunately, the latter was a major issue throughout the second half as the Explorers constantly faced free-position shot after free-position shot for what seemed like an eternity.
"That was very frustrating," first-year Hudson head coach Kyra Maludy said. "They [the Polar Bears] were just going to go through until they got a call their way."
Things really started to get dicey for the Explorers midway through the second half.
Jackson scored three consecutive goals in a span of less than six minutes to cut Hudson’s advantage to 10-8.
At that point, the Explorers decided to kill the clock and play keepaway with the Polar Bears. The strategy worked for several minutes until Hudson got a bit anxious.
A pass intended for Peyton Farley near Jackson’s goal was intercepted by the Polar Bears.
Sadly for the Explorers’ defenders, they were under siege the rest of the way.
Annise Berkeley made it 10-9 with 4:27 remaining and Jackson, which dominated the draws during crunch time, got the tying goal when Camille Patton scored less than a minute later.
The Polar Bears actually had a chance to win it in regulation, but Abigail Lair’s free-position attempt in the final 15 seconds went just wide of the goal.
Debevec led Jackson with five goals and Patton finished three goals. Allie Hartnett scored Jackson’s first two goals.
Prior to the dramatics in the final 20-plus minutes of regulation and overtime, Hudson clearly dictated the pace.
Thanks to beautiful ball movement and some quick sticks to win the draws, the Explorers took an 8-4 lead at halftime.
Senior Kendall Paltani scored all three of her goals in the first half and contributed two assists to lead Hudson. Maggie Palumbo finished with three goals and one assist and Sarah Hinkle scored twice for the Explorers.
Lily Edwards found the cage once for Hudson and Emily Ritenour had a fancy bounce shot elude a couple of defenders on its way to the net. Senior Mary Castrigano added an assist for the Explorers, who got 10 saves from goalie Addie Judson.
While the loss was a rather sinister punch to the stomach, Maludy appreciated every moment she spent with her players.
"I love coaching these girls," she said. "They’re a great group of girls. They work really hard; they’re funny. It makes for good times.
"They all have their own unique qualities. I think that’s what makes them great for this team. No two girls are the same. Getting to work with them and know them ... I can’t wait to continue to grow with them."
It’s a safe bet these two teams could meet in the 2020 Division I, Region 2 final and perhaps the 2021 regional title match.
Both teams are loaded with talented underclassmen who plan to take their games to the next level in future years.
"It’s not just the rivalry at the high school," Kroah said. "I’ve gone to the middle school games; I go to the youth games. It has become that lacrosse rivalry in Northeast Ohio and I think it’s unbelievably awesome."
Hudson will have two massive holes to fill. Paltani and Castrigano were potent offensive playmakers throughout the spring.
"They had some words for the girls of just love, respect and that they miss us," Maludy said of her two seniors. "They thanked us for a great season and allowing their senior season to be a good one.
"We’re definitely going to miss them next year. It’s two, but it’s a valuable two. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there next year."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, email@example.com or @FrankAceto_RPC.