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East Jackson Senior Daniel Poole.  Photo by Ryan Kerwin, JTV Sports.

By Gary Kalahar

JTV Sports

Daniel Poole needed little time – say, one game – to show he was ready to make the leap from middle school to varsity basketball.

As a freshman in East Jackson High School’s first game of the 2014-15 season, Poole drove the lane and sank a basket at the buzzer to beat Columbia Central 49-48. Three years later, Poole continues pouring in the points at a record-breaking pace. And, more importantly to him and his team, leading the Trojans to victories. After winning no more than seven games in each of Poole’s first three seasons, East Jackson is off to a 6-1 start this winter. The highlight – so far, anyway – was a 62-56 victory over perennial Cascades Conference power Hanover-Horton, a game that saw Poole reach the 1,000-point mark for his career.

“I knew we had to win that game,” Poole said. “That was what was most important. A thousand points is a big thing, but I’d rather do something big in this conference than care about my 1,000th point.”

East Jackson coach Rodney Lowden said that type of attitude has gone a long way toward turning around the Trojans’ fortunes this season.

“We talk about being unselfish and sharing the ball,” Lowden said. “As long as we have the win at the end of the game, they don’t care who has the stats, they’re happy with the win. That’s tough sometimes for kids to buy into, but they’ve done that. That makes it easy to coach when they’re that unselfish.”

Poole said there is a different feel in the East Jackson locker room, with more focus on team success.

“It’s more fun because we’re all getting along, we’re all communicating with each other, doing the roles we need to do,” he said. “The last few years, our team wasn’t consistent enough and really didn’t get along with each other that well. The seniors are saying this is our last year, we have to do something special.”

The decision to jump Poole from eighth grade to varsity basketball was not all that difficult for Lowden after his first team won two games and averaged 41 points a night.

“I saw him play as a squirrelly eighth-grader, and he had something you can’t teach,” Lowden said. “He sees the rim bigger than everybody else and can put it in the hole. It wasn’t a thing where we were bringing him up for an extra body.  I knew there was a good opportunity for him, to get him up and get him comfortable at that level.”

Poole was in the starting lineup right away, displaying a level of confidence perhaps unusual for a youngster thrown into that situation.

“I went through some struggles with some seniors not being too happy about a freshman starting,” Poole said. “But they ended up accepting it, and I got comfortable. I knew what I had to do, trying to win games.”

The left-handed guard averaged 10.3 points a game as a freshman, including 15.0 over the last nine games, capped by a 30-point outing in a district tournament loss to Concord.

“We started to lean on him to score as the year went on,” Lowden said. “It’s hard to feel comfortable when you’re a freshman and you’re being leaned on to be a consistent scorer. He didn’t want to be viewed as a ball hog, and I was telling him to shoot the ball. It took him maybe a little bit to get comfortable knowing that I wanted him to shoot.”

Poole earned honorable mention all-conference that season and was all-conference his sophomore and junior years. He bumped his scoring average to 17.3 as a sophomore and 15.6 last season, leading the Trojans in scoring and finishing second in assists with 2.3 a game each year. This season, he is averaging 22.3 points a night. His role has not substantially changed over the years.

“First, to be a leader and help everyone out,” Poole said. “And do what I do best, put the ball in the hoop.”

Poole’s career high is 37 points in a victory last season over Whitmore Lake. He hit for 33 and 30 in two games this week, including a 62-38 victory over Springport in which he set the school record with nine three-point baskets. Now in his sights, East Jackson’s career scoring record of 1,201 points held by Greg Straub.

His accuracy remained steady at around 40 percent from the field overall and 30 percent on three-pointers for his first three years. He has markedly improved this season to 47 percent overall and 45 percent from three-point range, where he isn’t afraid to fire from well beyond the arc.

“I never thought I would give someone the green light as much as I’ve given Daniel,” Lowden said. “He’s got range. Usually I’m not comfortable with kids jacking it up from that far away, but he’s got the range.”

If Poole and the Trojans were going to find team success, though, they knew they would have to step things up on the defensive end. They are allowing 49.0 points a game and have given up more than 56 just once, a huge improvement over recent years.

“I was pretty lazy,” Poole acknowledged of his defensive effort. “I got caught slacking sometimes, not paying attention and getting lost.”

That is just one of the ways Lowden has seen Poole mature.

“He’s really developed into a player who just wants to win,” Lowden said. “He really wants to win and see his teammates succeed as well, so that’s been good to see.

“And to see him understand and be coachable, to see when I call him over to tell him something, he already knows what he did – it’s fun to watch him learn the game and play at a high level.”

Poole is one of eight seniors on the East Jackson roster, including Collin Blough, who also was promoted to the varsity in his freshman year. Three more players are in their third varsity season.

“We’ve had a young team, it feels like, for three years, and now we’ve kind of hit that point where we’re experienced,” Lowden said. “I really believe this team can play with anybody, but we know the conference is deep. In our conference, anybody can beat us, but we can beat anybody.”

Just a victory away from matching their highest win total from the last four seasons with this one not halfway over, the Trojans know the games are going to take on a different feel.

“Under the radar is a thing of the past,” Lowden said. “People are going to be ready to play you. Every game is going to be big.”

Poole, quarterback of the football team and a middle distance runner in track, aspires to a career in nursing. He has not made a college choice and does not know whether there is more basketball in his future.

“Right now,” he said, “I’m just thinking about this season and winning games.”

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