The Manchester High School girls softball program was successful right out of the gate when Title IX began to be implemented to any great degree more than 40 years ago, winning the Class AA state championship in 1979.
Another state title would follow in 1990 and again in 2001. And as such, the Panthers were on the every-11-years plan, which is pretty good, and they got close to winning the championship any number of other times. They had one of the best programs in the state.
So, then, Manchester softball was an unqualified success.
But Manchester High School girls basketball? Uh, well, perhaps not so much.
It was at the other end of the equation – almost 180 degrees away, in fact – in those early days of girls sports at the school. As much as the Panthers dominated their competition in softball, they were dominated by it in basketball. The wins were far and far between, and so were the players.
“We were not real top-shelf in girls basketball back then,” recalled longtime Manchester High School Principal Jim France, who was then the assistant principal.
Because of off-the-court issues, France had to take over as head coach in two different seasons to get the teams to the finish line.
“Back then in girls basketball at just about all the schools, there was only one coach for both the varsity and junior varsity teams. There was no JV coach,” France said. “I remember one time when I was coaching, we were playing up at Hudson and had just 10 girls total for both teams. We were OK in the JV game, but in the varsity game, two girls fouled out and we ended up finishing with just three players on the floor.”
The girls basketball program was in dire need of help.
Enter Bob Eckert.
Eckert, a former basketball and baseball player at Manchester, having been the sixth man on the school’s undefeated Class AA state championship team in 1974, took over as girls head coach in 1994. His older daughter, Kristy, had been the starting point guard as a freshman the year before on a team that finished just 2-18.
“We stunk,” Kristy said. “My dad saw how miserable I was and said, ‘We’re going to do something about this,’ and he took the head-coaching job.’ ”
Eckert, who passed away from brain cancer last Thursday night at the age of 64, had already returned to the school as a basketball coach, having served as an assistant on the boys team for 10 years. So he switched gears to the girls game, learned all about the players the Panthers had and the teams in the Principals Athletic Conference, and went to work on the daunting task of turning Manchester into a winner.
Even though their record wasn’t much better – just 3-17 -- in that first year under Eckert, the Panthers’ play certainly was.
“We lost seven games by three or fewer points,” Kristy said. “We were learning Dad’s system, and we were learning how to win.”
That was easier said than done.
“We didn’t have many girls on the varsity that first year. I think it was only eight,” Kristy said. “He said that we were going to be the best-conditioned team in the league. He told me, ‘You can never come out of the game,’ and I never did during my last three years except for one time. We were playing East Canton that first year – we ended up losing 80-22 – and I hurt my knee in the first half and had to come out. I was hobbling around at halftime and Dad was saying, ‘You can get back out there, can’t you? Come on, come on, try to jog on it.’ We laughed about that for years.”
Things began to turn a little the following year, the Panthers continuing to play better and also starting to win some games. Then in Kristy’s senior season of 1996-97, the Panthers, with her sister, Erika, an outstanding shooting guard, joining the team as a freshman, took a quantum leap forward, winning the first of eight league titles in a row.
“Dad did a real good job of finding out what each of his players could, and couldn’t do, and then he found a role for them,” Erika said.
France said Eckert “was really good at making in-game coaching adjustments. He always outcoached the coach he was going against. But what Bobby did best, and the real reason why he won, is that he put the time in – and then some – to build the program. He worked very hard, and so did the girls.”
Added Manchester Middle School Principal Jim Miller, in whose building Eckert worked as a physical education instructor when he later became a teacher in the district, “Whenever Bobby was coaching at any level, boys or girls, and the state permitted teams to have a certain amount of days to practice in the offseason, he made sure that he practiced every single one of those days. He didn’t let those girls take any days off.”
France called Eckert “a tremendous competitor.”
Eckert retired – or so he told everybody -- after his 10-year run as the girls coach in which he won 154 games and made it to two regional tournaments, but he never really retired from coaching. He went on to be an assistant on the boys high school team again, coached the boys team at the middle school and did this, that and the other in the boys and girls programs at both schools, wherever and whenever he was needed.
“He loved coaching, and he loved basketball,” Kristy said.
Eckert, battling his cancer and getting ready to go on disability, coached his last game in 2018 as an assistant on the high school boys team. That seemed fitting, because that’s the job he had when he first began coaching at Manchester 33 years before.
“He coached – and contributed to the team – right up to the end,” longtime Manchester High head boys basketball coach Gene Schindewolf said. “But it wasn’t about the x’s and o’s with Bobby. It was about so much more.”