NEW FRANKLIN Expectations are running high for Manchester baseball program entering the season as the Panthers return nearly their entire roster from last year's Principals Athletic Conference championship team.
The Panthers, who won their first league title in 11 years last season, have nine of their top 12 players back for head coach Robert Graham, including his top two pitchers in his starting rotation.
The program has enjoyed a resurgence the past three seasons, reaching the regional tournament in 2015 and winning a pair of sectional championships. Graham, who has a career record of 152-90, which includes a stint at Garfield, returns a team with plenty of varsity experience.
Graham has complied a 34-22 mark (.607 winning percentage) since taking over at Manchester and believes that this could special year in Panther country.
"We are looking to build upon our two straight strong tournament runs, and our first league championship in several years," Graham said. "Only losing three seniors from last year's squad, expectations are high."
Leading the way for Manchester this season will be seniors Dalton Earich (pitcher/infielder), Andrew McFadden (outfield/pitcher), Jordan Seidel (pitcher/infielder), Kyle Whyte (outfield), Dean Edwards (catcher), Trent Mars (outfield/first base/pitcher), Cody Krager (first base/pitcher), Cody Lappin (infielder/pitcher) and Garrett Oliphant (infielder).
It’s a large senior class that brings plenty of experience with it, led by Earich, a Youngstown State University signee.
The right-hander was voted the PAC-7 Player of the Year in 2016 after going 7-1 on the mound with 47 strikeouts and an impressive 1.35 ERA in 56 2/3 innings pitched. Offensively, he was tied for second on the team with a .341 batting average and had a team-high 24 RBI.
"Dalton is going to be the ace of our staff again," Graham said. "Andrew (McFadden), and Josh (Seidel) have both received interests from some colleges, but have yet to commit."
McFadden returns as the top bat in the lineup, having led his squad in runs (24), hits (34), walks (14) and batting average (.447) as a junior. His strong season earned him a first-team All-PAC selection and Manchester will look to him to drive in runs again this season.
Seidel, who holds the number two slot in the rotation, had a solid junior campaign, posting a 3-2 record while fanning 43 batters and registering a 1.82 ERA. He fired a two-hitter against state runner-up Waynedale in the district championship game and in tandem with Earich, forms an imposing front end of the rotation.
The rest of the senior class was productive last season as well, with Whyte ranking second on the team with 22 RBIs. One area the group is seeking progress is its average at the plate, as Whyte hit .247, Edwards checked in at .254 and Mars finished at .240.
"(Dean) Edwards was our most improved, and top defensive player in 2016. He was a huge part of our league championship. Kyle (Whyte) proved to be one of our top RBI guys,” Graham said.
Those seniors along with a few newcomers to the varsity roster will have some big holes to fill in the lineup after the graduation of a pair of All-PAC performers in Mason Nist and Caleb Johnson. Nist broke the career record for hits (119) and runs (97) at Manchester surpassing, Colin Keim in both categories, a year ago and Johnson hit .288 and was 4-0 from the mound with a 2.37 ERA.
According to Graham, strengths of this year's unit are speed, experience and starting pitching, while middle of the order power, pitching depth and an inexperienced middle infield are the primary areas in need of growth as the season begins.
Looking at this year's conference race, Graham believes it could wide open again once again, noting that the PAC had four teams advance to district championship games in 2016. CVCA, league newcomer Orrville, Indian Valley and Triway could all be factors and the Panthers know that they’ll be a targeted team to beat as they try to repeat as league champions for the first time since the 2001-02 seasons.
Weather is always a factor when it comes to the early weeks of the baseball season, but the Panthers are slated to open their season March 25 when they host St. Thomas Aquinas with a doubleheader. One interesting entry on the schedule comes April 8, when Manchester battles Lake at Canal Park, with the stadium’s permanent residents, the Akron RubberDucks, hosting the Bowie Baysox afterward. Playing in a minor league stadium is an exciting opportunity for a team that hopes to play in plenty of big games this spring, with the ultimate goal another deep tournament run.