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Young Panthers trying to find footing

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

NEW FRANKLIN When a team leans heavily on younger players, it can take that squad time to find its footing at the start of a new season.

The Manchester Panthers find themselves in just such a spot as they make their way through the opening weeks of a pandemic-impacted boys basketball season, working through the bumps and challenges that come with COVID-19. Veteran head coach Gene Schindewolf has spent 36 seasons on the bench for Manchester and is looking for this year's edition of the Panthers to connect what they do in preparing for games to the results once the ball is tipped off.

With three straight losses to begin the year, that connection is still a work in progress.

"We've been practicing really hard and it's a fun group to be around, but we need to carry over a lot of the intensity we have in practice to games," Schindewolf said. "It's hard to compete if you don't do that consistently."

To be sure, the Panthers do have players with varsity experience under their belts. In addition to seniors Nathan Smith, Josh Veppert and Robert Radcliff, their junior class is led by players who have been on the varsity roster since they were freshmen.

Athletes such as Trent Pappas, Ben Noirot and Jordan Schindewolf have suited up in plenty of varsity games, but are seeing larger roles this season and with teammates who are either new to the district or making the jump from freshman or junior varsity basketball, the group as a whole is trying to navigate the ever-changing schedule that the pandemic is creating not just for Manchester, but for virtually every high school team across the state and even the country.

"Our season so far, getting three games in and a full preseason, we've been fortunate," Schindewolf noted. "It's been a phone call here and call there, having a cancellation and being able to find someone else to get our games and scrimmages in."

So far, Manchester has had just one game affected by COVID-19, a scheduled league game against Fairless that was postponed due to virus-related issues within the Fairless district. In its place, the Panthers were able to slot a game against Canton South.

That the Fairless news came down around 1 p.m. on game day, three hours before the Panthers were slated to get on the bus to travel to the game, is the new reality with which teams must grapple this winter.

While Manchester is a member of the minority in terms of districts where students are doing in-person learning five days a week at this point due to the pandemic, that fact does create some potential issues for the team and for all of the district's winter sports.

If a player happens to sit next to a fellow student in class and that student later tests positive for COVID-19, the player would then land in quarantine through no fault of their own. With that in mind, Schindewolf, his staff and their players are making use of the different tools at their disposal to stay connected.

"Good or bad, we're on social media and we've been able to stay in touch that way," he said. "I'm telling them the lesson from my old driver's ed days, to expect the unexpected and so far, I'm really pleased how they're handling everything."

As this year has proven, the chance for more and different challenges is high and as teams make their way through the season, expecting more curveballs is the approach many coaches and players are taking. While that reality seems to have reinforced an appreciation for simply being able to practice, play and compete among athletes and coaches, the "happy to be here" mindset isn't exactly the focus for the Panthers.

Schindewolf admitted that there's a temptation to get impatient with the team's progress and to want to see bigger strides being made, but he believes that the continued hard work and positive mindset the Panthers have shown thus far will take them where they want to go over the course of the season.

Whether they are able to play a full season and have a postseason is out of their control, but the Panthers are determined to keep moving forward for as long as the pandemic allows.