NEW FRANKLIN A year ago, Manchester came within two games of making its first trip the state softball tournament since 2014, falling to Warren Champion 5-1 in the Massillon Division III regional semifinals.
The Flashes went onto to win their second consecutive state championship, and eighth in its school's history defeating Cardington Lincoln 9-4 in the title game. But in the wake of that setback, Manchester its trying to regroup and overcome the loss of a talented senior class in order to make another strong run this spring.
If the Panthers are to duplicate their success they will have their work cutout for them, as they lost six starters from last season's team, including Principals Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Robert Morris College signee Erika Bell (.554 batting average, four home runs, 33 RBIs).
"We are very young losing six starters from last year's team so it is going to be a learning experience for some of our younger players as they have no varsity time," head coach Jim Morehart said. "Our goals this year are to work to get better every week. We have talented athletes, but it is going to take sometime for them to grow as varsity players."
Bell along with Alex Craig, Trudie Christy, Josie Michel, Olivia Carder and Maddie McVaney will be sorely missed. They helped lead the red and black to three titles in past four seasons and Morehart, now in his 25th year with the program - 16 of those coming as the head coach - believes his squad can be a factor in this year's PAC race despite a heavy roster turnover.
The former Manchester graduate knows that the PAC, which has changed in composition multiple times in the past decade with the exodus of Indian Valley and Canton Timken and the addition of Northwest and Orrville, will be highly competitive and sees a chance for the Panthers to find their way into the race, with their bats leading the way.
“Tuslaw and Northwest are probably the top two teams in the league this year, but the entire league should be pretty competitive. I feel we can compete. Our team hits pretty well, but we have to fix some things on the defensive side, but the girls are working hard and they will get better as the season goes,” Morehart said.
Leading this year's charge for the Panthers will be seniors Haley Doll (pitcher), and Megan Toth (pitcher/third base), juniors Emily Rucker (second base), and Gabby Newell (catcher/outfield), and sophomores Maggie Kusmits (catcher) and Tess Christy (infield).
Kusmits was a first-team All-PAC-7 selection batting .424 with four home runs, and 28 RBI, while Rucker also swatted four homers and had 26 RBI, while hitting .314.
Doll, who was a key part of the pitching staff, also had a nice year at the plate in 2018, hitting .387 with two home runs and 19 RBI.
Morehart knows that Doll’s dual-threat status will need to rise this spring in order to help the new-look Panthers succeed and believes she has the ability to do just that.
"Haley (Doll), and Megan (Toth) will carry most of the load pitching, but senior Heather Donaldson will also get some time pitching as well as playing first," Morehart said. "All three of these girls are good hitters and we expect good seasons from them."
Whoever toes the rubber for Manchester will have a reliable backstop in Kusmits, who thrived both at the plate and as a catcher last season. With Tess Christy at short and Emily Rucker at second base for the third straight season, the defense figures to be strong up the middle and could benefit from any contirutons fro ma group of newcomers that includes sophomores Chloe Perry, Courtney Evans and Naomi Morehart, and freshman Emma Stamperd. All are expected to see plenty of action in the revamped outfield.
Manchester, which finished 18-8 a year ago, like most teams is battling the elements of the unpredictable spring weather as the year gets underway. In spite of the chilly, sometimes snowy conditions, they have gotten three games in the books, defeating Barberton 18-11 in their opener, and dropped a pair of games to Tuslaw by identical 12-2 counts.
Those early results underscore the challenges facing the Panthers, but like they weather (eventually) will do, they’re hoping to heat up and recapture their momentum of one year ago.