NEW FRANKLIN  When Shawn Zavodney took over the head coaching duties at Manchester prior to this season, he never could've envisioned what was about to unfold for the Panthers.

A season that began with the goal of launching a new era and building the program back into a Principals Athletic Conference power took a sharp left turn just three games into the campaign when the Panthers lost a key cog of the team, McKenzie Ferguson, with a torn ACL.

Ferguson was not only one the team's leading scorers and rebounders from a season ago, but also made her presence felt defensively with her size. She was her squad's only player standing 5-foot-10 or taller and without her height on both ends of the court, the team found itself at a size disadvantage on most nights.

"McKenzie was a four-year varsity player and was the heart and soul of our team," Zavodney said. "Her injury was devastating. It changed our chances at a much better record, and a deeper tournament run."

From that point on, Manchester experienced its fair shares of up and downs, with the season reaching its conclusion in a 56-17 loss to unbeaten

Chippewa in the sectional finals of the Wooster Division III tournament. The team finished its ledger with 9-15 record, but despite the tough path the year took, Zavodney felt the year wasn't a lost one.

"The nice thing about our season is that everything stayed together," he said. "The seniors had their best season ever. We grew as a team and coaching staff. Mistakes were made, but only once."

The idea of not repeating mistakes is one on which most any coach would agree, but executing it is much tougher than it sounds. Zavodney noted that because of Ferguson’s absence on the court, other players had their development accelerated due to increased playing time.

Freshman guard Karli Anker, who was expected to play a big role, saw her part of the game plan increase further and three other freshmen also saw regular playing time. Anker earned First Team All-PAC honors along with first-team honors for the Women’s Tri-County Basketball Coaches Association.

Along with Anker, Jordan Campbell and Liz Seidel were among those who turned in strong seasons and with other players stepping up to help fill the void left by Ferguson’s absence, Manchester still recorded some solid wins. One of them came in an inspiring 55-48 victory over host Fairless in their sectional tournament opener, the Panthers’ first playoff win in nearly four years.

Anker had one of the strongest individual outings in a 33-point scoring outburst in her team's 55-50 setback to CVCA. Zavodney pointed to players from across the roster when it came to trying to replace what Ferguson brought to the court.

"Jordan (Campbell) stepped up after the injury to McKenzie (Ferguson)," praised Zavodney. "She averaged 15-plus (points) per game, and was up there near the leaders in assists and rebounds too. (She was) Second Team WTCBCA and was my hardest worker. Karli (Anker) was extraordinary in every aspect of the game and Liz (Seidel) is really coming into her own. She averaged nearly a dozen rebounds a game."

According to Zavodney, Seidel has plans for a busy offseason of basketball and both player and coach are hopeful that more court time will grow her game and turn her into a player capable of anchoring the low post for the Panthers.

The Panthers will be losing five seniors to graduation Ferguson, Campbell, Tristan Zavodney, Ashley Forret and Josie Michel, but the future of the program looks bright thanks in part to the struggles the team fought through and learned from this season.

"We feel that we'll get better every year, barring any major injuries," Zavodney said. "We will lose Campbell's presence, but we have some very promising underclassmen stepping up, and playing year round. Our middle school program is one of the strongest in the league as well. The seventh grade girls are loaded with talent, and brought home the PAC-7 championship trophy. The eighth grade girls are also very talented with a two-point loss in their championship PAC-7 game. We should be in great shape for quite a few years … definitely on the upswing."

The first-year head coach also saluted his coaching staff, which included Jay Anker, Kayci Krzynowek and Autumn Brown, with Zavodney noting that all three were a huge help as he made the transition to head coach this season. The final record may not be what players or coaches were aiming for, but they believe that it is a step in the right direction.