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Manchester football overcomes challenging season

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

NEW FRANKLIN. The 2020 season started late and ended earlier than expected for the Manchester Panthers, whose football fall consisted of just six games.

Due to the scheduling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Panthers found themselves sitting on the sidelines for the first two weeks of the season while many of their rivals kicked off their slates. First-year head coach Jay Brophy admitted that while the year was tough and presented myriad of unusual challenges, ultimately he believes it’s on him to figure out a way for his team to succeed.

Manchester quarterback Trent Pappas, center, makes a pass during the first half of a football game at James R. France Stadium, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Akron, Ohio.

“It was tough … I just have to do a better job,. We were shut down, didn’t have scrimmages and practice time while all of the teams that played weren’t shut down at all,” Brophy said. “You can blame those things, but the reality is that I have to do a better job. We were trying to feel our way through it and find out what works for us.”

Regardless of when the season began, Brophy knew his team would have to find a way to replace graduated running backs Ethan Wright and Hunter Foster, with the former graduating as the school’s all-time leading rusher. Finding a way to replace 3,000-plus rushing yards from one season to another would be a monumental task in any year, let alone in the midst of a pandemic.

Without a preseason scrimmage schedule and limited time on the field prior to their home opener against Fairless, the Panthers opener with a 7-0 win that opened plenty of eyes around the Principals Athletic Conference. The Falcons had already defeated Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy and played a close game against state-ranked Northwest, so shutting them out and getting a win was a big early boost.

“Starting off with Fairless and winning was really big in terms of getting our guys to buy in to what we were doing,” Brophy said. “We opened up with a win at home and the next week we lost (running back) Cooper Briggs and Caige Shuler, then beating Edison in the playoffs was big and that game showed what we could do offensively.”

Those wins were highlights of the year, while a 2-4 record underscored some of the difficulties Manchester dealt with along the way. Contests like the Northwest game and playoff loss to Kirtland – both foes ranked in the top 10 in the state in their respective divisions – illustrated how a young team with a smaller roster had little margin for error against the best of the best.

Manchester running back Cooper Briggs rushes for a 52 yard touchdown against Fairless during the first half of a football game at James R. France Stadium, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Akron, Ohio.

New starting quarterback Trent Pappas settled in under center as the year wore on and while the preseason offensive game plan called for junior transfer Kenton Duty to see some snaps at quarterback, Duty ended up as an all-around threat who was active not only as a runner and receiver, but also as a defensive back and punter. His versatility was valuable for a team that didn’t have a deep depth chart.

“What we’re finding out is that he can be big addition … he can run ball well, has great hands and catch ball well, can play quarterback and as a defensive back he’s really good and two interactions, broke up three or four passes … he’s like a utility knife for us,” Brophy said.

Duty, a transfer from Coventry, proved his value in the opener when he nabbed an interception and also pinned Fairless deep in its own territory several times with long punts. There were multiple packages for Duty at quarterback entering this season, but going into next season, his role appears likely to skew more to other positions. This fall, he tied for the team lead in both rushing and receiving touchdowns, as well as leading the offense in all-purpose yards and averaging 33.1 yards per punt.

Pappas has his ups and downs at quarterback, throwing two touchdowns and four interceptions and completing 43.3 percent of his passes. The junior signal caller has a chance to settle into his role going forward and get more comfortable at the controls of the offense.

Some of that process could have transpired in the last few weeks of the 2020 season, but the pandemic had other ideas for the Panthers. While the Ohio High School Athletic Association allowed teams that had been eliminated from the playoffs to play additional regular-season games prior to Nov. 14. However, following their playoff ouster at the hands of perennial state power Kirtland, the Panthers weren’t able to get back on the field despite their best efforts.

A scheduled game against Tuslaw was canceled due to a positive COVID test within the Tuslaw program, leaving Manchester with a decision to make in terms of trying to find more games. Around the same time, Brophy noted, his own program had players being sent home from school for COVID-related concerns and with all of that in mind, trying to schedule more games seemed like a non-starter.

“The thing for us was kids being sent home and being tested for COVID and that started adding up. We went into the Kirtland game banged up and lost some starters to injuries, then Tuslaw had their COVID case and we decided that we weren’t going to search for more games just to find games,” Brophy said. “We met with our coaches and players and discussed it. Everyone decided it was time to go ahead and called it. I talked to Tuslaw’s coach and he said the same … it just wasn’t in the cards.”

The unexpected early end to the season was jarring for the entire team, but hit hardest for the squad’s six seniors, who ultimately played their final game in the Kirtland loss without knowing it was their final time in a Manchester uniform. For the rest of the team, along with Brophy and his staff after their first season at the helm, the quest to rebound and return the program to its winning ways will begin in a few weeks when offseason lifting starts up. With what is expected to be a large, talented incoming freshman class set to join the program next season, the Panthers are looking to put the difficulties of an odd campaign behind them and bounce back.