You want special?
The Manchester High School football team delivered that – and then some – with its resounding 44-0 triumph over visiting Rootstown on Saturday night in the opening round of the Division V, Region 17 playoffs. It gave Ohio’s all-time winningest prep football coach, the Panthers’ Jim France, his 400th career victory. His nearest challenger, the retired Bob Lutz of Ironton, is almost 20 wins behind.
But as unique as that is – and it is certainly such, very much so, in fact – the method by which it was achieved is normal, usual in every way, shape and form. The Panthers have been winning games in that very manner since France arrived in 1971. Saturday’s game looked like football’s version of “Groundhog Day” or “Same Time, Next Year.”
The second-seeded Panthers (8-3), who won their fifth straight and advanced to a second-round game against the sixth-seeded Sugarcreek Garaway Pirates (9-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Louisville Leopard Stadium, ran the ball consistently and very well, 24 times for 254 yards, averaging 10.6 yards a try. Duke commit Ethan Wright led the way, as he always does, with 190 yards and four touchdowns, including one on a 64-yarder, in 15 attempts. Fellow senior Hunter Foster added 59 yards and a 39-yard score in eight tries.
The Panthers passed it sparingly, but effectively. Sophomore Trent Pappas – all 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds (soaking wet) of him – completed four of seven attempts for 73 yards. Wright hit his only try – a 23-yard, right-on-target laser-shot off a fake punt – to give Manchester 96 yards passing in all, and 350 yards of total offense. The Panthers also did not have any turnovers.
That’s just the way France likes to see it done. Running the ball eats the clock and wears opposing defenses down, and that’s exactly what happened in this game as the Panthers, undaunted by a lack of success early, kept pounding away until the Rovers (7-4) finally began to crack. And once that occurred, then the cracks kept getting bigger and bigger. Indeed, the Panthers didn’t just beat the Rovers. They beat them up physically.
In addition, the Panthers were outstanding defensively, recording their second shutout in the last four games. The also intercepted two passes and forced a fumble that was returned 73 yards for a TD by Wight, who doubles as a safety.
It’s not a complicated formula for victory, just almost always a well-executed one by Manchester. Like the coach, now in his 49th season at the school, that formula is a constant.
As such, then, this could have been France’s career win No. 1.
Or No. 73.
Or No. 144.
Or No. 176.
Or No. 222.
Or No. 289.
Or No. 316.
Or No. 388.
Or any of the other numbered victories before, after and in between.
So, then, a Manchester team that, in the first part of the year, couldn’t run the ball as well or as a consistently as it wanted, couldn’t pass the ball at all and gave up any number of big plays defensively, including through the air, is now doing very well in all three categories. Ditto for special teams, the final piece of the puzzle.
With that, then, these Panthers, who didn’t know for much of the year how to win, and weren’t really sure they would win on any given night, are now convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that, no matter who they play, where they play or what happens in the game, they will find a way to win.
And consider this: Since the last three minutes of the Fairless game on Oct. 11, when the Panthers, after blowing a 28-6 halftime lead and allowing the Falcons to tie at 28-28, drove the length of the field for the deciding touchdown in a 35-28 victory, they have outscored their opponents 146-33.
In addition, almost all of those points allowed – 26 – came at Orrville in the first 2½ quarters after which the Panthers scored 23 unanswered points to win. And the seven points scored by CVCA in the regular-season finale occurred after the Panthers had blown out to a 27-0 fourth-quarter lead and went into a prevent defense to merely salt the game away.
No team in Ohio is hotter than the Panthers, or has done a more dramatic turnaround.