Writers are always looking for not just good stories, but the best ones – the ones that seem to have a little, or a lot, of magic, yes magic, in them.
I’ve found that in writing about longtime Manchester High School head football coach Jim France.
And for some fortuitous reason I’ve been the one picked to tell his story. It is a privilege I don’t take lightly.
There was, of course, France’s march last season to becoming the state’s all-time winningest high school football coach. And to be honest, I thought that was the end of it – the really good stories.
I mean, what more could happen?
But before any good story could be told about France and the Panthers this season, a sad and mournful one had to be told, and that was the passing just a week and a half before the start of the season of his wife, Nancy France, with whom he had been sweethearts since childhood in Springfield Township. They had been married for 55 years and together for 70 years.
But, like it or not, football seasons march forward no matter what, and so this one did, too, and fortunately so, as France’s coaching of the team acted as a way for him to get away from his sorrow, if only for three hours every Friday night. The Panthers won their opener, lost their second game and then won two more, outscoring their foes 98-19, to stand 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the Principals Athletic Conference.
Thy seemed to be on their way – yet again. That it has happened so many times before through the years.
Then the story turned south again, this time on the field, as the Panthers lost two straight and were just 3-3 overall and but 1-2 in the league, and France was worried. The schedule was backloaded, with the three toughest foes coming in the final three games.
He wondered privately if this might be the first season in his 49-year tenure when the Panthers posted a losing record. After all, there seemed to be no way that the Panthers, especially with the way they were playing, could beat all of those last three teams.
Now here’s where the story gets good – perhaps historically so – as, before that grueling, season-ending stretch even began, the Panthers squandered another lead, this one by 28-6 over Fairless at halftime, allowing the Falcons to tie it at 28-28 before winning it 35-28 on an Ethan Wright touchdown run with 16 seconds left.
Was it a season-saving touchdown, or only a brief respite from their troubles?
The Panthers would soon find out as the big three – Northwest, Orrville and Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, in that order – awaited them.
The game against Northwest was, as expected, lopsided, but not in the way everyone thought as the Panthers played their best of the season in blanking the Indians by a resounding 39-0.
“We made mistakes – we still have some things to correct – but that was nearly a perfect game for us offensively, defensively and on special teams,” France said afterward as his team improved to 5-3 overall and at least assured itself of not finishing with a losing record.
The magic continued at Orrville last Friday night, but in a totally different way and not before the Panthers struggled for more than half the game, falling behind 26-6 midway through the third quarter. The Red Riders are the defending Division V state champions and PAC champions, so trailing by 20 points on the road to them is a recipe for the disaster.
The Panthers then put on one of the greatest comebacks in school history, scoring 23 unanswered points, 15 of which came in the final quarter, to win 29-26 on another Wright touchdown run in the final seconds. It broke a 15-game Orrville winning streak dating back to last season’s 67-31 loss to Manchester.
The victory clinched the Panthers (6-3, 4-2) a spot in the Division V, Region 17 playoffs as, in two weeks’ span with these huge triumphs, the Panthers went from 11th place in the standings and out of the picture to third place, with a chance to earn a first-round home game by beating CVCA on Friday night at home in the regular-season finale.
Three straight wins, all improbable in their own way. The Panthers have done a lot of great things since France arrived in 1971, but perhaps nothing like this in a three-game stretch as they turned their season around in dramatic fashion.
“We’ve had games like these last three, but most of them have come in the playoffs,” he said. “This is as good as we’ve ever done in three consecutive weeks in the regular season. We’ve gone from maybe having our first losing season to getting a spot in the playoffs, and maybe even a home game. It’s pretty special.”
Yes, making for a pretty special story to tell.
If the Panthers can beat arch-rival CVCA, which is 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the league and tied with Orrville for first place, then the projection is that they would finish in second place in the region. The top eight teams in the region make the playoffs, and the top four earn first-round home games.
So, when would that first-round playoff game, at Manchester or on the road, be, next Friday night (Nov. 8) or next Saturday night (Nov. 9)?
France wasn’t sure a day after beating Orrville.
“I haven’t paid any attention to it because I really didn’t think we’d make the playoffs,” he said.
For the record, it’s Saturday night. But that’s getting way ahead of ourselves, for the great story of this great Manchester season – one that no one saw coming, at least certainly not in the way it has happened – may have another chapter to tell – with some more magic thrown in -- before then.