Indians open league play with challenge

By Grant Guggisberg

If the Manhattan Indians hope to contend for a Centennial League title, Friday’s league opener at Emporia becomes an important game.

Of course, championships aren’t decided in the first game, but Emporia and Highland Park are widely considered the favorites in the league. Unseating one in the opener would be big for both the Indians’, and the rest of the league’s, chances down the road.

Tim Brooks knows why the Spartans, ranked No. 3 in Class 5A, are so tough.

“They’re a monster challenge,” he said. “They return almost everyone.”

Emporia has four starters returning in Jackson Perez, Garin Vandiver, JL Savage and Jerel Morrow. Perez was all-state in 5A last year after averaging 20 points per game, while Vandiver was third-team with 16 points and seven rebounds per game.

“They’ve got 6-foot-7, 290-pound Vandiver inside, and he can also step out and shoot the 3,” Brooks said. “Perez is probably the best point guard in the league, though I think JT is playing pretty darn well. Moro is super athletic, Savage is super athletic.”

Emporia is 4-0 on the year thus far, and looks to have all the tools to compete among the best in 5A. After finishing fifth in the Centennial League last year at 15-7, 8-5, third-year coach Beau Welch returns most of the key cogs in his team, while teams that finished ahead of them in the league standings a year ago are looking to reload, with the exception of Highland Park.

With the Indians still feeling out what kind of team they want to be, especially offensively, Friday’s matchup offers the chance for Brooks’ team to take a giant step forward. Perhaps the one advantage the Indians have against Emporia, is they’ve already played a game against one of the state’s best in the season-opening loss to Derby.

The Spartans opened the year against Maize, but have since played Hesston, Rose Hill and Garden Plain, with an average margin of victory of 34 points.

Defensively, Manhattan will be tested much like they were against Derby. Brooks has said from the onset of the season that his team will struggle to win high-scoring games. If his team’s defense, which has been primarily man-to-man with a couple different looks sprinkled in, can assert itself against the high-scoring Spartans, they’ll have a chance.

That will be tough, however, as Emporia has been consistent in its scoring, averaging 69 points a game with a season low of 67 against Maize in its season opener.

“They’ve got all you need to be a good team,” Brooks said. “They’ve got size, they’ve got speed, they’re very good.”

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