NEW FRANKLIN Time is running down, but the Manchester softball team is looking to get untracked and finish their regular season strong as they enter the final weeks of the campaign.
The Panthers began their season with high expectations with seven returning starters, but haven't quite jelled yet compiling a 8-6 overall record and 5-1 Principals Athletic Conference mark through the start of this week. The team’s struggles can be traced to its defensive woes, a touch of inconsistency on the mound and weather-related difficulties.
Still, they’re hopeful that there is still time to turn things around before the postseason begins.
"It’s been a tough year for us weather-wise," head coach Jim Morehart said. "We haven't had one practice on our field this year and we've been only able to play three home games."
Not being able to get on the field consistently can hamper a team in a litany of ways and Morehart, in his 16th season as the helm, has seen those effects directly.
"For one thing, it’s hurt us defensively. We haven't been able to work on some of the basic fundamentals. Right now we are four games behind due to postponements," he said. "I'm not sure if we'll be able to get them in due to our league schedule and upcoming tournament games."
Regardless of which games get played and which don’t, the focus for the Panthers is shoring up their defense and making sure that their pitching staff gets more support. Morehart noted that the team’s pitchers have allowed a lot of unearned runs due to errors in the field and that doesn’t sit well with anyone.
Extending innings with errors invites disaster in softball and can create frustration within a team. Because the Panthers don’t have a pitching staff that records a lot of strikeouts, its hurlers focus on getting batters to put the ball in play so fielders can make plays. When that doesn’t happen, the results are predictably negative.
The offense has done its part, as the lineup is batting .360 as a group with a .525 on-base percentage. The long ball has been a prominent weapon in the arsenal, with 15 home runs in 14 games and 128 runs scored. While the defense remains a work in progress, Morehart likes what he has seen from his team at the plate.
"I really don't have any complaints about our offense," Morehart added. "They have hit the ball extremely well one through nine with no easy outs."
Leading the offensive barrage is senior Erica Bell, a Robert Morris University signee. Bell has a .514 batting average with 15 RBIs and a .620 on-base percentage. With Alex Toth (.530 average), Maddy McVaney (three home runs, 17 RBIs, .400 average), Emily Rucker (three home runs, 12 RBIs, .400 average) and Josie Michel (.420 average) all hitting .400 or better, there aren’t many places for opposing pitchers to hide when facing the Panthers.
Junior Haley Doll has been the team's number one pitcher, posting a 7-4 mark. Despite the struggles on the defense side, Morehart believes Doll and the rest of the staff can help guide the Panthers to a league title.
"Our number one goal is to win the PAC and we are in control of our own destiny. We just have to stay clean the rest of the way," he said. "After that we'll get focused on making a good tournament run. We have a good shot to win our district (Norwayne), but its going to be tough with Tuslaw, Triway and Northwestern in the mix. If we can put a complete game together there's not to many teams that can beat us. Hopefully, we can continue to grow in these next few week's and have a memorable finish. We have a great group of kids."