It’s fair to say the Manhattan High football team knows how to win Centennial League football titles.
The Indians clinched at least a share of their fifth straight league crown with a 22-7 win over previously undefeated Topeka High at Bishop Stadium Friday night.
“It’s very special for the seniors,” Manhattan head coach Joe Schartz said. “Our seniors have worked very hard. To be rewarded as league champions their entire high school career is very special.”
Despite beating the undefeated Trojans, Manhattan will share the title with them, with each team technically finishing with a 6-0 league record. Washburn Rural’s loss to Junction City leaves it out.
Schartz recognized the oddity of sharing the title with the team he just beat, but said it’s the same system every year. Last year, the league record was decided by the final six Centennial League games on each team’s schedule, which worked in Manhattan’s favor after losses to Emporia and Seaman early in the season. This year, it’s decided by the first six and Manhattan’s perfect 6-0 record thus far in league games netted it another championship.
“Those are the rules,” Schartz said. “Everybody plays by them, just like the tiebreak rules for the district. We play by the rules just like everybody else.”
This year marks a change in the district tiebreaker rules, with KSHSAA increasing the district tiebreaker to 21 points instead of 13. The change led to a frantic scramble by the Indians to score in the closing seconds, despite leading by 15 points.
“The new tiebreaker is 21 points, so we were trying to get as many points as we could,” Schartz said. “That’s why we went for two, and that’s why we tried to get more points at the end.”
Topeka High (6-1, 6-0 Centennial) went into Friday’s game as the only undefeated team in Class 6A, but quickly found itself in a dogfight against the Indians (6-1, 6-0).
The Trojans were able to gain yards on a stout Indian defense, finishing with 282 yards, but struggled with turnovers all night, losing the ball twice on red-zone fumbles. Topeka quarterback Alec Beatty also threw a pair of interceptions in a forgettable night in the passing game. Beatty finished 1-for-9 passing for just 6 yards.
“I don’t know what the turnover count was — we had some turnovers ourselves — but that’s been our M.O. the whole season,” Schartz said. “The defense has been playing well and really shutting people down, and getting those turnovers for us and setting us up with great field position. As of late, our offense has been capitalizing.”
Even with the miscues, Topeka made it a game in the fourth quarter despite trailing 14-0.
The game started to turn when Trojans’ running back Austin Tillman went down with an apparent knee injury midway through the final quarter. He was carted off the field in an ambulance and play was stopped for about 15 minutes as trainers worked on Tillman.
Topeka head coach Walt Alexander said Tillman’s status for next week is unknown. Tillman finished with 122 yards.
Two plays following the play stoppage, Topeka High broke up the shutout with a 41-yard touchdown run from Da’Ma’Cias Nielson to make it 14-7 with 4:57 to play.
The Indians were able to use clock on their next drive, despite seeing a 59-yard touchdown by Bret Fehr get called back on a holding penalty. But facing fourth-and-2, they scored a touchdown on a 27-yard pass from Kellen Myers to Chris Martin to pad their lead. Henry Bieber carried in the two-point conversion to make it 22-7.
The Indians stopped the Trojans on the next four plays to get the ball back, but came up short trying to score another touchdown in the final seconds.
Schartz said he was proud of the way his defense set the tone against the Trojans.
“Topeka High is an excellent football team,” he said. “I’m really proud of my defense. The mighty-mites — they flew around and really hit people. They’ve got tremendous hearts. We don’t have much size but the kids really play hard and they play well together. Anytime you hold Topeka High to seven points, you’re doing something right.”
Manhattan was led by Fehr’s 100 yards on five carries, with Fabrizius seeing a bigger workload and logging 70 yards on 11 carries. Myers finished 9-of-14 passing with 104 yards and a touchdown.
Topeka was led by Tillman’s 122 yards, with Beatty chipping in 97 yards.
MHS got on the board first on a broken play in the first quarter, with Myers rolling out to his left and looking for Fehr short of the end zone, but the throw went through his hands and right to Fabrizius for a 16-yard score.
The Indians would add to their lead on an 8-yard touchdown run by Henry Bieber to make it 14-0. The score was set up by a 70-yard run by Fehr on a sweep that nearly broke for a touchdown, but the senior receiver tripped up as he ran past the secondary and was caught from behind by a Trojan at the Topeka 11-yard line.
“Bret is a talent, and we need to find ways to get him the ball,” Schartz said. “With him already having a head start, that really puts a lot of pressure on the edge of the defense. We saw that’s something we can do, and Bret and everybody else did a nice job on that play.”
Topeka had its chances to answer, but punted quickly on its first two drives and saw a pair of fumbles cost the Trojans possession of the ball deep in Manhattan territory on its next two drives. Topeka had 149 rushing yards in the first half, but scored no points to show for it.
Alexander was not pleased with the officials on the second of Beatty’s fumbles, which came at the worst time for the Trojans and could just have easily been called down.
“It’s not disappointing losing to Manhattan, what’s disappointing is we turned the ball over in the red zone twice in the first half and that probably was the difference in the ballgame,” Alexander said. “And that one time, and I’m not afraid to say it, Beatty was down, and it was just a terrible call. It was a terrible call, and I don’t usually call officials out, but that was bad.
“When an official — and it’s kind of a big game — makes that kind of a call in this game, it’s bad.”