NEW FRANKLIN Six weeks into the season, it was all but impossible to find anyone who would have predicted the Manchester Panther would still be playing football the week before Thanksgiving.
Yet here they stand, midway through November, as one of just eight Division V teams and 56 teams across all divisions in the state to still be playing. Even veteran head coach Jim France, who has helmed the program for four and a half decades, admits this playoff run is a bit more special than others simply because it was anything but a certainty midway through the season.
"It's been a big turnaround since midseason ... I told our kids it's been the biggest turnaround I've seen in all my years of coaching. We were struggling to stay around .500 and then we reeled off some big wins against really a bunch of playoff teams," France said. "This is our 25th year in the playoffs and it doesn't get old, especially because it's been such a big challenge this year. I'm proud of kids because halfway through the season, we were trying to figure out how we can get through the season here we are now in the third round of playoffs, so it's been a special playoff run."
Wins over playoff teams such as Orrville and CVCA – and near-playoff teams such as Northwest – gave Manchester both confidence and a chance to climb in the playoff points race. Wins over Rootstown and Garaway, in which they outscored their foes by a combined margin of 65-14, has added to what France labeled "a guarded confidence."
It's tempered by the knowledge of who they're facing this weekend at Bedford Bearcat Stadium. Kirtland is, as fans of another Summit County small school power – Mogadore – know well, a juggernaut in recent years. The Hornets ended multiple runs by very talented Mogadore teams in the Division VI, Region 21 final, over the past decade and won three state titles during that span, but have since moved up to Division V.
They won the Division VI state title last season with a 15-0 record and have won 27 straight games, with their last loss coming in the 2017 Division VI state title game to the same team they beat for the title in 2018, Maria Stein Marion Local. They also beat the Flyers for the 2015 state title after winning the 2013 state title as well. Ditto for 2011. In fact, the last time Kirtland won fewer than two playoff games and didn't reach the regional final was all the way back in 2009.
That move up has done little to slow Tiger LaVerde's program, as the Hornets are 12-0 this season and have outscored their opponents by a combined margin of 516-65.
It's a tall challenge for a Manchester team playing more underclassmen than normal, with six sophomores starting for the Panthers.
"They're a great program over last few years. They've moved up to our division from Division VI and they play really good defense, they're physical, well-coached and offensively they're really strong with two good running backs and a good quarterback," France said of Kirtland. "They want to run the ball about 80 percent of the time and they're the predicted state champion in our division by a lot of people."
Still, Kirtland's opponents in the first two rounds of the playoffs have managed to challenge them in the early going, with Sandy Valley seizing an early lead and South Range keeping the game close in the first half as well.
However, the Hornets have pulled away in the second half in both games, a fate Manchester is hoping to avoid. The Panthers have shown a tendency to play well in one half as not as well in the other half of certain games, a recipe that would likely spell disaster against top-seeded Kirtland.
They will, as their longtime head coach noted, play well all night long and be consistent, mistake free and steady. Even then, they could well need something special to secure an upset win. That something special just may wear No. 7 and is the all-time leading rusher in Manchester history.
Ethan Wright is the sort of game-breaking back few teams have, let alone Division V teams. He's in the midst of his third straight 2,000-yard season and climbing the ranks of the leading rushers in state history. He and fellow running back Hunter Foster, who's looking to add another 1,000-yard season to his resume, form a solid one-two punch and according to France, the team has immense confidence in Wright's ability to alter the balance of a game with his speed and athleticism.
"Our kids have a lot of faith and confidence in Ethan and our coaching staff does too. We call it 'feed the beast,' and we try to get him the ball as much as we can because we know the opponent may stop him here and there, but he's going to break through and he has the capability to turn the game around with the kind of big plays he's produced over the years," France said. "Hunter Foster is very good complementary back to Ethan because if they if overplay Ethan, Hunter can get the job done."
Big games from both backs would form a foundation on which Manchester could build a surprise win and reach the state semifinals for the first time since 2013, when they Panthers made a magical run predicated on a record-breaking running game before falling to Columbus Bishop Hartley one game shy of a state title game appearance.
There maybe some similarities to that team, France noted, as least on one side of the ball.
"It compares to it (2013) defensively because we've been playing teams and shutting them out or limiting a team like Garaway to 14 points, so the defenses from those two teams (2013 and 2019) are similarly hard-nosed, aggressive defenses, but offensively we're a different type of team than we were back then, when we relied on a bunch of guys to run the ball and now we relay a bit more on one guy in Ethan," France said.
To be sure, that 2013 team handed the ball off to four or five backs and wore down opposing defenses, whereas this season it's been a heavy dose of Wright with a dash of Foster en route to a 9-3 record and two playoff wins.
Getting a third one will almost certainly require all the postseason magic the Panthers can conjure and would likely rank among the biggest wins in program history.