NEW FRANKLIN When the Manchester Panthers began the season, they had two goals: capturing a third Principals Athletic Conference title in four seasons and making a long tournament run.
With the year now over, it’s safe to say they accomplished both in resounding fashion. Despite a sluggish start that saw them sitting barely above .500 through 16 games, the Panthers turned their fortunes around by rattling off nine consecutive victories and advancing to the girls Division III regional tournament before being ousted by the state’s top-ranked team, Warren Champion, in a 5-1 loss at Massillon High School.
"Overall, we had a very good season," veteran head coach Jim Morehart said. "I couldn't be any prouder of the girls. They battled throughout the year, and they gave it all they had. Its unfortunate it ended."
Morehart, who has led Manchester to seven league titles in his tenure, knows that this year’s 18-8 record didn’t come easily. Going toe-to-toe with the eventual district champions proved Manchester’s mettle, as the Panthers and unbeaten Flashes (28-0) were deadlocked 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning before Champion pushed across four runs to seal the victory.
Still, reaching the regional tournament and garnering a district title was impressive for the Panthers, who during their winning streak outscored their opposition, 113-40.
Their 10-2 PAC mark was enough to outdistance the rest of the league field for the title and although the run that took them to the top ended with the loss to Champion, Morehart was happy with the squad’s effort.
"We put a nice little run together, but ran into a very good Champion team. There's a reason why their unbeaten and ranked number one," Morehart said. "Our girls didn't back down. We had one bad inning. They are definitely the best team we've seen all season."
The loss brings an end to the Manchester careers of five seniors who have been instrumental to the program’s recent success. There are two four-year starters in Erika Bell and Alex Craig, along with fellow seniors Trudie Christy, Josie Michel and Olivia Carder.
That group notched three league titles, putting it among the most successful senior classes ever to wear the black and red. Morehart cited the quintet’s leadership abilities as one of its biggest contributions, although their statistics show that they added plenty in a tangible sense as well.
Bell, a Robert Morris (Pa.) signee, led the Panthers in hitting from the lead-off spot with an average of .554 to go with four home runs and 33 RBIs. She was the team's only offense in the Champion contest, blasting a solo homer off pitcher Sophie Howell.
Craig hit .370 with 12 RBIs, while Carder (.426 avg.) Michel (.418) and Christy (.320) all hit well throughout the season.
When it comes to the non-seniors on the roster, there looks to be a solid base from which to build toward next season.
Sophomore Emily Rucker (four home runs, 26 RBIs, .314 batting average), freshman Maggie Kusmits (four home runs, 28 RBIs, .424 batting average) and juniors Maddie McVaney (four home runs, 31 RBIs, .409 average) and Hailey Doll, (two home runs, 19 RBIs, .387 average) are among those who should bring both power and the ability to hit for a good average to the lineup next season.
Doll and fellow junior Megan Toth also formed a solid 1-2 punch in the rotation this season, with Doll receiving a majority of the assignments. Having two returning pitchers with experience will give Manchester a good start to go with the return of more than half of a lineup that blasted 24 home runs and batted .398 as a unit.
"This was probably one of the best hitting teams I had the privilege to coach," Morehart said. "There weren't too many easy outs in our lineups. We averaged nearly 10 runs per game."
He noted that there is a good nucleus in place, with five players who started all or part of this season. One of the factors that will determine the success of the returning group promises to be its ability to find new leadership to fill the void left by the five graduating seniors. It’s the challenge that faces every team in every sport with each successive season and as the incoming freshman class steps into the program, it begins the cycle all over again for a program that has found a way to sustain its success and keep on charging ahead.