NEW FRANKLIN After capturing their first PAC-7 baseball championship in 11 years last spring, the Manchester Panthers hoping to carry that success over to this season.
Unfortunately, the season hasn’t played out according to plan, but the Panthers are hoping to shake off early-season doldrums and finish with a flourish in the weeks ahead.
Despite beginning the year with high expectations, Manchester dropped nine of its first 12 decisions, putting the Panthers in an unenviable position at 3-9 as the year reached its midway point. However, the team looks to have turned the corner of late, winning six of its last seven contest to elevate its record to 9-10 overall and perhaps more importantly, 7-3 in conference play.
"We're disappointed with our start record-wise for sure," head coach Bob Graham said. "Everyone's expectations were, and remain high, especially when you return nine seniors from a league championship team. Baseball is a funny game full of highs and lows. We try to focus highs, learn from our mistakes and move forward trusting the process. We couldn't ask for a better group of kids. Their work ethic and positivity are exactly what everyone coach dreams about."
The rebound began after tough back-to-back losses to Jackson (Gold) by an 8-5 count and Dalton by a 6-5 margin. In the wake of those defeats, the Panthers swept Indian Valley in two-game league mini-series, winning 1-0 and 3-1 on April 17 and 19, respectively. Those defeated represent the Braves’ only two league defeats up to this point and for Manchester, the wins seem to have gotten them back on track.
"We started learning how to win," Graham said. "That probably sounds funny considering our success last year, but this is a different team, learning who are, our roles and our identity. Last year, we had some big bats in Mason Nist and Caleb Johnston along with Dalton (Earich) and Andrew (McFadden) who could drive gaps."
With the graduation losses of several of those big bats, the team’s offense has taken on a new look. Without their power bats to drive in runs, the Panthers have had to find way to scrap for offensive production and according to Graham, the players are gradually learning what adjustments they need to make and the result has been a more confident group in the latter stages of the season.
While the final record won’t be quite what the team had in mind at the start of the season, it’s clear that things are trending in a positive direction.
For the season, Earich, McFadden and Cody Lappin have paced the red and black offensively. Earich, a Youngstown State signee, is hitting at a .435 clip with three doubles, one home run and 11 RBIs. McFadden, who recently committed to Earlham College in Indiana, is hitting .333 with team-highs of 15 runs and 12 walks, and Lappin is batting .278 with 12 RBIs.
On the mound, Earich has been the team’s ace and in a win over Canton Central Catholic two weeks ago, he became Manchester's all-time strikeout leader with 177, surpassing Mitch Keim (173 from 2009-2012). On the season, the senior right-hander has a 5-3 record with 55 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA in 42 innings of work.
He’s gotten plenty of pitching support on days he doesn’t take the mound, as Seidel has a deceiving 3-4 mark with 33 strikeouts and an outstanding 1.17 ERA, underscoring the lack of run support he’s gotten in some of his starts. Lappin has emerged as a solid option in relief, recording 15 strikeouts in 15 innings with two saves.
As the offense has gotten rolling late in the year, contributions have come from a wide range of players, including Michael Rector, Michael Paljich, Dean Edwards, Kody Krager, Trent Mars and Kyle Whyte.
Manchester, which lost in the regional finals to Canton Central Catholic in 2015, is hoping to make another long run, but the Panthers know that they’ll need to tighten up a few details to make that happen. The CCC team they recently defeated is drastically different than the one that won a state title two seasons ago, having said goodbye to longtime head coach Doug Miller and virtually all of its top contributors from its title team.
"Consistency in our play and our approach are areas we need to improve," Graham noted. "One game, we’re lights-out offensively, and the pitching and defense has a let down or vice versa. When we find consistency between the three the sky is the limit.”
The hope, according to Graham, is that way so many seniors, the team will learn to play more instinctively. Being and to trust what they see and think quickly on their feet rather than wait on the coaches to tell them what to do is an issue that has persisted throughout the season and the veteran coach noted that such missteps, especially in base running, has cost the Panthers a few times.
The schedule from here on out looks to be as tough as what came before it, but Graham pointed out that it’s how the coaching staff planned it out in order to get the squad ready for the postseason. The question now is how the Panthers will look when they reach the postseason and whether they’ll continue to be the team that has picked up its pace in the past few weeks, or if the flaws that plagued them early on will trip them up once the tournament begins.