NEW FRANKLIN The Manchester high school boys baseball team ended its season with a flourish a year ago, winning 10 of its final 13 games, and the Panthers have carried that momentum over on the diamond in 2019 so far.
Under the guidance of second-year head coach Shawn Johnston, who saw his team post a 10-8 overall and 7-5 Principals Athletic Conference record, good for runners-up honors in the PAC-7 last season, says his squad is one that does a very good job of keeping itself on task and setting standards for which to aim.
"I don't set too many goals for this group," Johnston said. "They are tough competitors. They have a goal of winning the league and going as far in the tournament as they can. When it all comes down to it, they want to win every game they play whether its a league game or not, but winning the league is the most forefront goal."
Johnston, a Green High School graduate and a former Manchester junior varsity coach (2000-2006), has seen the Panthers get off to a 7-4 overall and 4-1 league start by defeating Firestone, Tuslaw, Northwest, Coventry Triway (twice) and Canton South.
While tough non-league losses to Norton, Coventry and Western Reserve Academy have been disappointing, an extra-inning loss to Northwest is the team’s only league setback so far. After winning back-to-back PAC titles in 2016 and 2017, Manchester returns a slew of talent to the diamond this season with seven letterwinners back and hopes to turn that talent into another title.
The veteran contingent includes seniors Michael Paljich (pitcher), Brandon Caster (catcher), Cole Krager (outfield), Tyler Young (outfield) and Nick Mayer (shortstop) and juniors Quin Summers (pitcher) and Ryan Wike (pitcher).
Caster and Paljich were both first-team All-PAC selections last season, as Paljich batted .421 with 17 RBI, while Caster hit .350 with 10 RBIs. Paljich was also one of the team’s top hurlers with a 3-2 mark on the mound and a 2.72 ERA.
"Michael is a very patient hitter and does a nice job on the mound for us," said Johnston. "Brandon does a great job behind the plate. Nick (Mayer) is a third-year shortstop, who has been very good and has been looking forward to his senior year. He is the general of our defense."
Johnston pointed to Young’s play in the outfield as key for the defense and credited the senior’s range with allowing him to reach balls that may seem destined to drop in for hits. Krager likewise has top speed in the outfield and Johnston wants to see that speed on the base paths as often as possible.
With Summers, Wike and fellow junior Chris Macko on the mound to complement the seniors, the goal is for a consistent pitching staff backed by a reliable defense to pilot the Panthers to the top of the league and to what they hope will be another long tournament run. Around those established contributors, the coaching staff is looking to junior Christian Shover (first base/pitcher), sophomores Caige Schuler (infield/outfield/utility) and Zane Cowles (catcher), and freshman Jadon Johnston (infield) to step in and contribute where they’re needed.
As for the league race, Johnston knows it will be a multi-team tussle that could very well go down to the final week of the season.
"There are some really good teams and some really good coaches in our league," said Johnston. "Tuslaw, CVCA, Triway, Fairless, and Northwest all have hard-nosed kids and coaches that know how to coach baseball. Our league is very competitive, and I am confident it will come down to the last few if not the very last game to be played to determine our league winner. Hopefully, with a little toughness, great play and luck, we can be one of the teams fighting for that title."
Johnston and his staff, which includes assistants Caleb Johnston, Steve Roberts, Johnny Henson and Bryan Snyder, are working around a schedule that will certainly be revised and recalibrated as weather forces postponements and delays, but through the rain, occasional snow and wind, the Panthers are aiming for their third league title in the past four seasons.