After back-to-back weeks of dominant performance against overmatched teams, the Manhattan High football team will be hitting the road to face a much tougher team this Friday, even if its winning percentage doesn’t show it.
The Shawnee Heights Thunderbirds are just 1-4 on the season, but have played a daunting schedule. After opening with a 44-point blow-out loss to Emporia and a win over KC Schlagle, the T-Birds have played each of Manhattan’s upcoming district opponents and have lost to each of them, albeit closely. Their largest margin of defeat came in a 10-point defeat by Topeka High.
“I know they’re a good football team,” Manhattan head coach Joe Schartz said. “Their record is 1-4, but you can see they’ve had a tough schedule. Washburn Rural has one loss, Junction’s got one loss and Topeka High is undefeated.
“So the teams that they’ve lost to are very good football teams, and they’ve played all of them close.”
While Schartz’s team was tested in the first three weeks of the season, the schedule got noticeably easier the last two weeks. Starting this week, the difficulty ramps back up as the Indians look to win their fifth straight on Friday.
“They have the capability of beating anybody,” Schartz said. “They’re a very good football team, so hopefully this is not the week they put it all together.”
Schartz said the T-Birds have talented players and have been using underclassmen in spots, which has led to some turnovers and costly mistakes.
“They’re a scary football team, and they have talent at every position,” he said. “They have a good offensive and defensive line. They’re a young football team. There’s a number of juniors and a few sophomores playing. This is the time of year when those underclassmen start to grow up, so this very well could be the time of year they hit their stride.”
Much like it has all season, Manhattan (4-1, 4-0 Centennial) will lean on its defense, which must adjust from stopping the run to stopping the pass. As always, the Indians hope to capitalize on any T-Bird mistakes.
“If we’re going to have success in this football game, we’re going to have to win the turnover battle,” Schartz said. “It’s going to be a little different. We’ve shown that we can stop a predominantly run-oriented offense, but this is a different offense in the fact that they’re almost 70 percent pass, and they’re very good at it.”
Schartz said quarterback Taymon Grabauskas is primarily a passer, but can do damage with his feet alongside running back Tony Barksdale.
“I think they threw for almost 350 yards against Topeka High and 290 against Rural, so you mix that it in with a talented quarterback on his feet when he decides to run and a talented running back with Barksdale,” Schartz said. “It’s a dangerous offense.
“They’re going to get yards, we just have to not give up the big play.”
Offensively, Manhattan will try to get the running game going, even though they’ve seen on film that teams have better luck through the air.
“We’ve struggled to see on film where anybody’s had much success running the football on them, at least consistently,” Schartz said. “And we’ve struggled to run the ball consistently. We’re going to have to be opportunistic and hopefully get some good field position from some turnovers and special teams and hopefully take advantage of that to put points on the board.”
While there are still plenty of league-title implications for this Friday’s slate of games, the real action starts the following week, when district games start. Manhattan’s tilt with the T-Birds is their last chance to work out any kinks on the field before the real action starts.
Nevertheless, Schartz said his team is always looking to take it one game at a time, especially when competing for a league championship.
“Our whole focus has been to get better week by week,” he said. “So far I think we’ve accomplished that. This week is no different. Hopefully we can continue to make improvements and really be playing good football once districts start.”
Kick off in Tecumseh is set for 7 p.m.