Manchester entered the season with high expectations, and as the regular season came to an end last week, the Panthers hit the mark with their first Principals Athletic Conference title in more than a decade.
A 5-4 win over Fairless in extra innings clinched the crown for the Panthers, their first since 2005. Coming off a regional finals appearance a year ago, the veteran squad was able to meet one of the primary goals it set for itself as part of a recent resurgence that has seen the Panthers become a force in the postseason.
"I'm really proud of this team," head coach Bob Graham said. "We started building something special last year, and it continued to grow. We had a good group of kids coming back, and we thought we could be successful."
The veteran coach noted that the team’s first goal for the season was winning the league title. A highly competitive league race made that a tall task and there weren’t many easy afternoons on the diamond, but solid pitching and a reliable offense game Manchester what it needed to accomplish its first goal.
From that point, it was a quick turn to the next standard to reach.
"Once we did that, we set our sights on our second goal, which is to make another long run in the tournament, and win the state,” Graham said.
Manchester (18-5, 8-4), which was ranked 21st in the Division III state coaches poll last week, was one game away from an elusive state berth a year ago before falling to eventual champion Canton Central Catholic 2-1 in the regional finals.
Graham believes his club has the ability to advance once step further this season with most of the roster back back. The loss of seniors Pavin Parks and Dan Hymes left two big holes to fill, but with an experienced group returning, the transition has gone well.
With the intensity of the postseason ahead, the slew of close games the Panthers have played this season should have them ready for similar settings in the tournament. The win over Fairless and another over Canton Central Catholic were big building blocks, and like any team with aspirations for a successful postseason, balance will be essential for Manchester in the tournament.
"Our pitching has been very good this year," Graham said. "Usually, when your coaching high school your fortunate to have two legitimate starters, but we have a lot of depth in our pitching with Dalton (Earich), Jordan (Seidel), and Caleb (Johnston), and Cody (Lappin). Hitting has been good from top to bottom. We don't have too many weaknesses."
On the mound, Earich has been a workhorse for the Panthers with a 6-1 record with 39 strikeouts in 49.2 innings pitched and has an minuscule ERA of 1.26. Seidel is 3-1 with 39 strikeouts in 43 innings of work and a 1.95 ERA and Johnston is 4-0 with an 2.37 ERA.
At the plate, Andrew McFadden with a .486 batting average with 24 runs scored and 24 RBIs. Other strong contributors in the lineup are Mason Nist (.355 avg. with 21 RBI), Earich (.351 avg.), Johnston (.284 avg.) and Kyle Whyte (.263 and 21 RBI).
Graham also credited his coaching staff, including assistants Bryan Snyder and Mark Valatka, with helping steer the team in a winning direction.
With a win in its tournament opener, edging out Orrville 3-2, and downing Rittman on Monday, the Panthers advanced to face the winner of the Waynedale-Chippewa matchup for a berth in the Massillon regional bracket. Expectations remain high and so far, Manchester has shown itself capable of living with the pressure of those goals and achieving them.