The hottest high school boys basketball team around these parts right now?
It just might be Manchester.
In the very least, the Panthers are certainly in the discussion for such.
After all, they have won seven games in a row, and 15 of their last 17, more than overcoming a tough 2-5 start and pushing their record to an impressive 17-7.
The fourth-seeded Panthers turned in one of their best performances of the season – hot shooting, good ball movement on offense, aggressive rebounding at both ends of the floor and a smothering defense -- in rolling past top-seeded Wellington 72-57 on Monday night in the Wooster Division III District Tournament semifinals. That has earned them a trip to the championship game on Friday night against Principals Athletic Conference rival, and second-seeded, Triway (16-8), which beat third-seeded Waynedale 51-45 on Tuesday night in the other semifinal.
It’s the seventh time, and the first in five years, that a Schindewolf-coached Manchester team has made to a district final. The Panthers have won two of the previous six title games, the last crown coming 11 years ago in 2007.
Manchester has been in 10 district finals overall, the other three coming during the Mike Phillips era from 1972-74, immediately after Schindewolf had finished a star-studded career at the school as a shooting guard.
"This is a lot of fun. We’re very happy to be here," said Schindewolf, who ever closer to the 500-win mark career-wise by notching victory No. 492. "That was a very good Wellington team that we beat."
And it was a very good – and very confident -- Manchester squad that beat the Dukes (19-5).
"This team may not have as much talent as the other teams I’ve had that made it to the district finals, but the one thing this team does have in common with those others is its confidence level."
Indeed. It’s extremely high, no question about that. These Manchester players are not cocky -- that difficult stretch at the beginning of the season has kept, and will continue to keep, that from happening – but they have gotten to the point now where they simply don’t think they can lose. As such, then, they are not surprised they beat Wellington that handily. They expected it.
But it’s not the end of the journey – not even close, really. There is much more out there to be accomplished. So they spent a little time celebrating the win Monday night and then quickly got back to work on Tuesday. They have a tall task in facing another very good team in Triway, one that beat them twice during the regular season.
"We had a good league season, but we couldn’t beat Triway (PAC runnerup) and we couldn’t beat Northwest (champion)," Schindewolf summed up of his team, which finished 8-4 in the league and in third place.
Three of the Panthers’ best players – senior guard JoJo France, sophomore forward Ethan Wright, senior forward Nick Beans and junior center Sam Hettich – all got a late start in the preseason workouts after being key members of a Manchester football team that won its second consecutive PAC championship and advanced to the second round of the Division V playoffs. Not only that, but they were also banged up from football.
"We had guys with ankles, backs, just all kinds of stuff hurting," Schindewolf said.
So when those football players did finally begin practicing, they were limited at times. That kept them from playing together and fine-tuning that much-needed chemistry they had developed the previous several seasons.
That, more than anything, was why the Panthers struggled coming out of the gate. They needed a couple more weeks to heal and get ready. If the season had started in early January instead of in early December, then they would have been fine. But it doesn’t work that way. The schedule begins when it begins, period. So the Panthers were forced to use those first seven games of the season to do their final preparatory work.
"Late in the season, you could see things begin to turn as guys got healthy and we really started playing well," Schindewolf said.
It’s the way the Panthers knew they could play, and were expecting to play all along. Now that it has happened, they are rolling along as well as any team Schindewolf has had in some time.
Monday night’s win was further proof of that – substantial proof of that, really, with a couple of exclamation points behind it. And his players are planning on seeing to it that Friday night’s district title game is more of the same.