NEW FRANKLIN A tale of two seasons.
That may be the best way to sum up a 2017 season in which the Manchester Panthers began their campaign with just three wins in their first 12 games, but finished with a flourish to capture their second straight Principals Athletic Conference title.
The 11-2 league mark that catapulted the Panthers to their second PAC-7 baseball title in as many seasons culminated with a win in the final game of the season, a 9-2 triumph over Fairless that came just two days after Manchester suffered a gut-wrenching 2-1 loss to district champion Chippewa in the sectional finals, ending its hopes for a long tournament run.
At 14-11, the final record isn’t what head coach Bob Graham and his team were hoping for, but the veteran coach was pleased with the way the squad responded to a rough beginning.
"Despite our slow start, the kids remained optimistic and committed to their goals," Graham said. "At 3-9 it would have been easy to fold, give in and start pointing fingers. Our kids never did that. They accepted the challenge, put in extra work and trusted their abilities. We couldn't be more proud of the way they faced adversity head-on."
According to Graham, the keys to the team's success in the latter parts of the year were timely hitting, some exceptional defense and solid pitching from his veteran squad, which featured 10 seniors.
The senior class exits with the back-to-back league titles - the school’s first since the 2001 and 2002 seasons, to its credit and with Dalton Earich (Youngstown State University), and Andrew McFadden (Earlham College) signing letters of intent to continue their athletic careers at the college level. Earich's senior season concluded with him atop the school’s all-time strikeouts lists, with 189 to top the previous mark of 173 held by Mitch Keim (2009-12). With a 6-4 record with 67 strikeouts in 53 innings of work and a 1.45 ERA, Earich was named the PAC-7 Player of the Year for the second straight season.
At the plate, he led the Panthers in numerous statistical categories and batted .438 batting average, with one home run, and 18 RBI.
McFadden also put up big numbers with a .364 average and a team-leading .479 on-base percentage while leading the team in runs with 25 and stolen bases with 13.
Across the roster, solid contributions from players such as Cody Lappin (.304 avg. 18 RBIs), Jordan Seidel (5-4 record, 55.2 innings pitched, 45 strikeouts, 1.45 ERA), Michael Paljich (13 RBIs) and Dean Edwards (.254 batting average, 12 RBIs).
With so many seniors exiting the program, Manchester will have to reshape its roster heading into next season. Replacing a senior class that finished their careers with a 60-47 record, three sectional championships, one district championship, one regional runner-up finish and two league titles won’t be easy.
"The senior class has been an extraordinarily special one," Graham said. “(It’s) one of the best and biggest groups I have ever had the privilege of coaching. They will always hold a special place in my heart. We watched them grow up right before our eyes, many of them playing at the varsity level for the past three seasons. The memories will made will certainly last a lifetime. It’s been an absolute honor to play a small part in their successes."
Still, there will be key components of the roster returning next season, with six letterwinners and three other players who saw time on the varsity level vying to fill in the holes left by outgoing seniors. Additionally, the junior varsity team went 17-4 for its third straight winning season, so the hope is that the young talent within the program will continue its upward trajectory and be ready for bigger roles by the time next season arrives.
Graham, along with assistant coaches Zack Kaufman, Cody Herman and Cody Miller will continue to work with those younger players to help them get ready for their increased opportunities and keep an eye on contending for another league title when next spring rolls around.