Friday’s rivalry matchup against Junction City felt like deja-vu for the Manhattan High football team.
For the second straight year, Junction City won a back-and-forth game, but the Indians won the war, earning a playoff berth with a runner-up finish in District 5.
Junction City led 16-10 after Manhattan turned it over on downs in Blue Jay territory, but instead of going for a bigger win, which could have resulted in a playoff berth, Junction City coach Randall Zimmerman chose to run the ball.
Six plays later, the game was over — no pass plays, no Hail Mary. Junction City took home the Silver Trophy in the 16-10 win, but will miss out on the playoffs.
With three teams in the district sporting a 2-1 record, Topeka High won the points tiebreaker with +13. Manhattan was the runner-up with +12 and Junction City will miss the playoffs with a +6. Even a field goal as time expired would have forced a tie and potentially led to the postseason for Junction City.
“It’s always a touchy situation — you take the chance chasing those points and you put the ball in the air, you take the chance of us intercepting it and running it back and winning the game,” Manhattan coach Joe Schartz said. “It’s a tough decision for a coach to make at that particular time.”
Manhattan earned the No. 5 seed in the Class 6A West bracket, sending the team to play No. 4 Maize next week.
In a tight game all night, Junction City finally broke through with less than 5 minutes to play, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 7-yard run by Ronald Wilson.
Manhattan answered with a drive down the length of the field, but a holding penalty set up third-and-16. Quarterback Kellen Myers’ first pass was broken up by the Blue Jays, with his attempt on fourth down also falling incomplete to give Junction City the ball back.
“It was a big call. I didn’t see it — I’ll have to see it on film,” Schartz said of the holding call. “We were driving and the kids were playing hard and doing their best to pull out a victory. I’ll have to look at that on film.”
Perhaps the biggest difference maker in the game was the 1-2 punch of Junction City’s running game, with the shifty and small Dequan Davis complementing the efforts of Wilson, who stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs 220 pounds.
“They did what they have to do and used their powerful offensive line against our defense,” Schartz said. “I’m proud of our kids — they battled, they battled hard and it’s just a typical Junction City-Manhattan football game.”
Offensively, the Indians missed the play-making ability of Bret Fehr, who is out with a knee injury. Kellen Myers finished 7 of 13 for 46 yards, clearly missing his favorite target. On the ground, Ethan Fabrizius led with 68 yards, while Henry Bieber finished with 54 yards and a touchdown.
“Junction City has a good secondary, and a lot of skill in their defensive secondary,” Schartz said. “And we were missing some of our playmakers, which hurt us a little bit. But overall I’m very proud of the kids.”
The Indians scored the first points of the night after Junction City’s fourth-and-1 attempt went for negative yardage and set up Manhattan with a first down on the Blue Jays’ 29-yard line. Four plays later, Bieber gave the Indians a 7-0 lead.
Manhattan led for most of the half, until Junction City quarterback Tanner Lueker hit Davis for a 22-yard touchdown to even the score with 1:15 remaining in the first half.
But the Indians answered quickly, getting a 17-yard burst from Fabrizius that set up a 39-yard field goal from Joseph Trujillo as time expired to give Manhattan a 10-7 lead at the break.
Junction City tied the game in the third quarter on a 30-yard field goal by Zach Roberts.
Once the game ended, the playoff scenario was up for debate, with KSHSAA rule changes affecting the opinions of which team would advance to the playoffs.
Even Schartz wasn’t totally sure.
“We did math throughout the week — somebody came up to me afterward and said that we weren’t (in the playoffs), and I told them I thought they were mistaken, but then again, the thought crossed my mind that maybe we’re not,” he said. “This playoff system is a little bit crazy.”
With next week’s trip to Maize still leaving plenty to play for this season, Manhattan’s players will try to regroup and overcome the loss of the Silver Trophy for the second straight year.
“It’s very hard,” Schartz said. “The kids put everything into it, and I told them after the game that I’m very proud of them and they have nothing to be ashamed of. They went out there and played their hearts out.
“They’re heart-sick. It’s a tough task to ask them to bounce back, but if anybody can do it, this group can.”
There was a 30-minute lightning delay Friday night while everybody waited for the small storm front to blow through. MHS athletic director Mike Marsh cleared the stands and sent everybody to their vehicles. The game started around 7:40 p.m.