NEW FRANKLIN  With a little less then two weeks remaining in its campaign, the Manchester boys basketball team is looking to build off some late-season success and have a solid run in the Canton Division II sectional/district tournament.

The Panthers, who lost to Triway 69-68  in overtime in the Division III district championship a year ago, will open up play at Marlington (10-8)  on February 26 at 7 p.m. A win would propel the red and black into the sectional championship against top-seeded and City Series champion Buchtel  (13-7). on March 1 and while those would be challenging matchups, the Panthers (8-10) seem to be peaking at the right time of the season as they have won six of their last 10 games.

"Our kids have worked hard from day one until now and as coaches that 's what we want," said head coach Gene Schindewolf, who gained his 500th coaching victory against Fairless on Feb. 5. "We've been in some really close games all season, won some, but overall we are getting better each time we go out on the court."

The main challenge the Panthers faced entering the season was replacing 45 points per game in offense accounted for by last season’s seniors. Add in the football team’s playoff run that had several players late to the hardwood in the preseason and Manchester was a squad that started slow and has worked its way into rhythm as the season has worn on.

With only a few games left, things are starting to look up. 

"Because of our hard work, we've improved all season. Our young kids have improved .. by young, (meaning) we have many players who never seen significant varsity playing time … many new young players this year,” Schindewolf said.

While getting his milestone win was a memorable moment for the veteran coach, he insists that seeing his young team grow and develop has been the highlight of the campaign. Describing the Panthers as “hard-working, but fun-loving,” Schindewolf noted that what’s been nice about the 500-win milestone is its reminder that he’s had players, much like the ones on the roster now, who have contributed to the total and gone on to coach at the high school and college levels.

He also credited his wife, Kathy, and the assistant coaches who have worked with him over the years in being key parts of what he’s accomplished in the game of basketball. This year’s squad hopes to accomplish more before its season ends and thus far, junior guard Ethan Wright is among the team’s leaders with averages of 10.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 3.0 steals per outing, while senior forward Cameron Adkins is averaging 9.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and senior forward Spencer Bagwell is among the squad’s leading rebounders with 6.0 caroms per game.

"We've had solid performances from everyone," Schindewolf said. "It's hard to single one person out. On any given night a new player steps up."

As tournament time nears, there are still areas to improve upon and details to be tended to and even though they have a tough tournament draw, the Panthers are determined to continue putting in hard work and seeing where those efforts take them. With Buchtel and heralded freshman forward Chris Livingston looming should they reach the sectional final level, Schindewolf and his players are still confident that they have the firepower needed to play better than their seeding would indicate.

"We will continue to work on our ball handling and defense," Schindewolf said. "Those are areas that will help us finish strong the rest of the season and tournament.  Because we keep improving and we are not one-dimensional and we can score inside and out, we can surprise some people in the tournament."