By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
Manchester, one of the proudest small-school football programs in Northeast Ohio, was not supposed to be lining up tonight against their Principals Athletic Conference rivals from Fairless in a Division V regional semifinal.
Nope, it wasn’t supposed to happen.
Well, that’s what everybody told Manchester as it started its 21st playoff appearance last week against the eighth-seeded 4-5 Ursuline Irish.
But, you know what, the cliché about why they play the game is around strictly for situations like this one. Because, guess where Manchester is tonight? That’s right, Central Catholic Stadium preparing to face Fairless after the Panthers knocked off Ursuline 19-16 last week.
VIDEO: Fairless-Manchester Preview
Everybody was saying Manchester wasn’t supposed to be here. Except the Panthers weren’t listening.
Or, more specifically, they were listening quite closely.
“I guess our kids just got a little bit tired of hearing about how good they (Ursuline) were,” legendary Manchester coach Jim France said. “They went out there and tried to show that we could play with them.”
Manchester didn’t just play with Ursuline. After a first half where the Irish were their own worst enemy with penalties and turnovers, the Panthers then became their worst nightmare.
While the Irish looked the part of a team primed to take off on a lengthy playoff run, it was Manchester that played like a team wanting to take off on another lengthy playoff run. And the Panthers ran over Ursuline in the second half, simply grinding the ball down its throat, wearing the Irish down before getting the game-winning field goal as time expired.
“When our 150-pound guard is lined up against their 275-pound tackle, and we were pretty much out-manned size-wise and speed-wise, I think not too many people gave us a chance to probably come close to these guys,” France said. “These guys just, they sucked it up and went after them. We actually, I would say, probably out-physicaled them, which was kind of their game.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the team to have our size and go against that team. It was definitely the old David-and-Goliath thing; it was truly that, it wasn’t just something to say, because they were huge and a heck of a good football team.”
Of course, France admits that is something that could also be said about his own football team. Not just the “good” part, but the “team” part.
There have been Manchester teams that have boasted bigger “names” than this one does. This team had to replace a “name” quarterback in Nick Peyakov, along with plenty of other players who helped last year’s team go 8-4 and reach the second round of the playoffs.
Didn’t matter, because here the Panthers sit with a 9-2 record and a chance to avenge one of those two losses when they meet Fairless. And that’s what France admits may be the best part about this team.
“The joy about it is we lost a ton of players last year, key players last year, that did a lot for us over the last two or three years,” France said. “I don’t think there was too many people expecting too much out of this group, except for the group itself. They worked very, very hard through the summer and two-a-days, and we’ve gotten a little bit better each week.”
All along, this Manchester team did it with grit, not glitz. It did it with sweat, not stars.
In other words, it did its part to emulate the ways of its no-nonsense head coach.
“They’re pretty much blue-collar guys,” France said. “We don’t have any stars on the team. We just kind of do our thing through hard work and good attitude. They just don’t like to lose, and those are three pretty good things to have on your side. They’re maybe not as big or as strong or as fast as some of our teams have been, but I don’t think any team has more heart than these guys do.”
And if there was any question about that, “these guys” would like to remind you that they weren’t supposed to be playing tonight in the regional semifinals. At least, that’s what everybody else told them.