NEW FRANKLIN All good things come to an end and some reach their terminus sooner than desired.
The Manchester Panthers saw their season come to a screeching halt by the narrowest of margins in a Wooster Division III district championship game. The Triway Titans earned a season sweep, besting Manchester 69-68 in overtime to dash the Panthers’ hopes of a regional semifinal berth.
The Panthers appeared to be destined for their first regional appearance since 2007, but the Titans had other plans, twice conjuring up improbable finishes to tie and then win the contest. Triway (17-8), whose only lead in regulation was 2-0, tied the game as time expired in regulation on a basket by Principals Athletic Conference Player of the Year Gabe Walker following a Manchester turnover with 5.9 seconds left.
Lighting struck again for the Titans in overtime following two crucial free throws by Manchester's Van Wallbrown with 29.8 seconds left, giving the Panthers a short-lived 68-67 cushion. Triway's Braden Biggs hoisted a prayer at the buzzer with a host of defenders surrounding him that found nothing but net, closing out the miracle finish.
The Titans mobbed Biggs as stunned Manchester players walked toward their bench, staring off into the distance. It was a heartbreaking end for the Panthers, who led by as many as 14 points (54-40) with 6:57 remaining in the final period, but weren’t able to fend off the Titans.
"We made a couple mistakes at the end that cost us," veteran head coach Gene Schindewolf said. "You hate to see it come down to that … what should've, would've, could've been. It's been a great run for us. Our season was so tough to get started, because of the injuries we had coming off the fall seasons (and) add to that we had two players who weren't in the program last year."
Schindewolf reflected back on the early portion of the season, when his team had a few stumbles and appeared to be trying to find its way. That happened as the year wore on and led to the run to the district title game following a strong finish to the regular season.
"It was a rough start, but the players never lost track of where we wanted to be by the end of the season," Schindewolf said. "I’m so proud of all 10 of our guys and wouldn't trade them for anyone, anywhere. They are Panthers through and through … blue collar, hard-working, first-class young men."
The Panthers turned their season around toward the end of January following back-to-back losses to Triway and Northwest at a point when they were still trying to figure out their identity and struggling with a mediocre 9-7 mark.
From that point on, Manchester went on a tear, winning eight straight and outscoring their opponents by an average of 12 points per outing, including tournament victories over Smithville (78-62) and top-seeded Wellington (72-57).
According to Schidnewolf, the key to the resurgence was the team believing in themselves.
"We stayed persistent," he said. "We kept working, and working, and shots started to fall in. We became a confident bunch. Our loss (to Triway) is going to hurt and sting for a little while, but we accomplished a lot. This group went from two wins as freshmen, to eight, 14, and 17 the last three years. I'm so proud of them."
Statistically for Panthers this season, JoJo France led the club in scoring with a 19.5 average. He also was tops in assists at 4.1 and steals at 2.6 per game. He became the school's all-time leader in 3-pointers and ended his career with 215. Seniors Nick Beans and Van Wallbrown tallied 13.7, and 12 points per game, respectively, and the duo also tied for a team-high 6.2 caroms a game.
Manchester will lose four prominent members of its team via graduation, with France, Beans, Wallbrown, and Tayron Latson moving on.
"I just love our seniors," Schindewolf said. "Each and every one of them are so classy, hard workers and awesome citizens in school, and our community. They will be missed, because of what they've meant to our program the last four years. (They) never gave up, they kept working to better themselves and it paid off."
Looking to the future, the cupboard won't be quite bare for Schindewolf (492-336 record in 38 years) as he continues his onward march toward 500 career coaching victories.
The Panthers will be able to return a pair of starters and several key rotation players, with Ethan Wright, Sam Hettich, Gabe Sharrock and Cameron Adkins all set to return. Members of a JV team that hovered around the .500 mark this season will be counted on to step in and keep the program trending in the right direction after the steps forward it has taken the past three years.