The early weeks of the season hit hard for the Manchester Panthers.

The early weeks of the season hit hard for the Manchester Panthers.

Now, the Panthers are hitting back.

They began the year with a trip to South Carolina for the Grand Strand Tournament and came back to Ohio and a schedule that included several Division I teams. The competition was tough and the results weren’t always pretty for a team replacing a large senior class from a team that won a district championship one year ago.

Yet, as the season reaches its final days, junior pitcher Jenna Williams and her teammates are playing well and have a flawless record in one of the places it matters most - league play.

“We just had to remember that we were playing really good teams,” Williams said of the difficult start to the season. “It’s not that we expected to lose, but we just had to have the mindset that we were going to play our best.”

Despite a 2-3 start and a tough loss to Jackson after returning to Ohio, Manchester began to turn its year around when league play began. At the forefront of that turnaround has been Williams, who stepped in as the top starter for a portion of last season when senior Brooke Horning went down with an injury. That short stint in the circle helped her get ready for this season, but it also inspired Williams to unplug from softball for a bit following the season.

“It is stressful,” Williams said of being her team’s top pitcher. “I took a lot of time off because I was getting burned out. Coming back and knowing I had to step up was a lot of stress, but I have a good defense behind me and that really helps.”

Stress on the mound is a common struggle for Williams. Much of the time, her teammates help when the entire infield comes together on the mound following an out to slap gloves and deliver some verbal encouragement. Other times, it’s her faith that helps calm her nerves and prevent her from getting too stressed out about the challenge in front of her.

“I definitely get nervous and I pray a lot during games,” Williams said. “I’m always asking God for help and to get me through the game.”

That faith was necessary during a key Principals Athletic Conference win against Fairless last month. Facing University of Akron recruit Kelly Hysong, Williams was anxious about facing a fellow top pitcher and called it “nerve-wracking”  to know that she had to match pitches with Hysong. Still, she was able to stay steady on the mound and help the Panthers defeat the Falcons for the first time in three years.

The win kept them unbeaten in league play and that mark has remained intact at 10-0, with a 15-8 overall record entering the closing days of the season. Being so close to a league title after losing a large and talented senior class seemed unlikely to the players prior to the season, Williams admitted, but the coaching staff had confidence in them and that confidence has proven well-placed.

A one-hitter in a win Tuesday against Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy pushed Manchester one step closer to reclaiming the conference crown, proving that a team that took a few sharp punches at the beginning of a long season has some punching power of its own when it comes time to finish the fight.

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