SHAWNEE — For many inexperienced teams across the state, the first football game of the year is a time for growing pains.
But for a Manhattan High team that returns a healthy dose of starters on both sides of the ball, the mistakes and uncertainty of playing football at the varsity level are supposed to be a thing of the past.
In its season-opening 26-21 loss on the road at Mill Valley, Manhattan spent most of the first half struggling on both sides of the ball. By the time they fixed some of their issues in the second half, the damage had been done and the comeback fell short.
“We had a lot of returning starters, but we didn’t really appear to be an experienced team out there,” Manhattan head coach Joe Schartz said. “We looked like a brand new team. The kids have to do some growing up and coming together, and so far we haven’t done that in practice. I think that was very evident the way we performed in the first half, that we really hadn’t come together as a team yet or figured out an identity or a direction to go.
“But the second half was much better — we grew up a little bit in the second half.”
After a dominating performance against Mill Valley a season ago, the Jaguars flipped the script on the Indians in Friday’s game, with Logan Koch rushing for 209 yards and scoring four touchdowns on the ground and two more through the air.
Manhattan (0-1) struggled offensively, but managed to cut into the Jaguar lead in the second half, with quarterback Kellen Myers, who came in for injured starter Darian Taylor, throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass to Winston Dimel with 2:02 left in the fourth.
But after a squib kickoff, Mill Valley needed only one first down to run out the clock. The Jaguars got it on their second try.
“They’re a different team,” Schartz said of Mill Valley. “Last year they had the tall quarterback that could throw the ball around, and this year they obviously have a tough running quarterback with a big offensive line. Every coach has to play to their strengths and Coach (Joel) Applebee did.”
Myers finished out the game after Taylor took a hit near the goal line late in the third quarter and fumbled. Mill Valley recovered on its own 6-yard line and drove the length of the field all the way to the Manhattan 1-yard line before the Indians forced a fumble and recovered it for a touchback that saved any chance of a rally.
“I was proud of our defense in the second half,” Schartz said. “They had a tough matchup with that offensive line and they really battled. They came up with the big play in the end zone to keep them off the board and really gave us a chance to stay in the game, and even to win the game.”
Fumbling was an issue all night for Manhattan, with several guys losing the handle on the ball and both quarterbacks struggling to get a handle on some errant snaps. Taylor’s fumble came at a bad time for the Indians, as they had all the momentum and had put together their best drive of the day up to that point after switching to the flexbone formation.
“We really easily could have rolled over and quit at that point, when we fumbled down there in the scoring territory,” Schartz said. “But you’ve got to credit the kids, they kept fighting.”
Junior running back Chris Martin led the Indian rushing attack with 81 yards. Bret Fehr was the top receiver with four catches for 75 yards, though he also scored on a 98-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter that gave Manhattan the chance to stay in the game.
“They had a good kicker, and the reason we didn’t get more in the return game is because of all the touchbacks,” Schartz said. “Finally they didn’t get a touchback and the kid took it to the house. He’s a tremendous talent and we’re going to need something out of our special teams all year long, and we got that tonight.”
Schartz said Taylor was hit hard on a couple plays, but should be ready to go next week. In his place, Myers was solid at quarterback, rushing for 50 yards, all in the fourth quarter, while leading Manhattan’s longest touchdown drive of the day.
“Kellen came in at quarterback and sparked us, and was really inspirational with his effort,” Schartz said. “There are a handful of kids out there that played almost the entire game and played their hearts out, but we need an entire team, not a handful of players. I think we took some strides in the second half to get to that point.”
Early in the game, it looked as if Manhattan might cruise to victory as it did a year ago.
Mike Settembrino intercepted Jaguar starting quarterback Ty Bruce’s pass on the first play from scrimmage and returned it to the Mill Valley 5-yard line. Two plays later, Henry Bieber scored to give the Indians a 7-0 lead.
But Manhattan would struggle the rest of the half, as the Jaguars switched Bruce with Koch at quarterback and scored three unanswered touchdowns, all while the Indian offense gained just 110 yards, 55 of which came on one long pass play.
“Obviously, the game didn’t start the way we wanted it to,” Mill Valley head coach Joel Applebee said. “But our kids responded to the adversity, and that’s what we’ve been talking with them about the last few weeks.”
Looking forward, Manhattan gets an Emporia team that throttled Shawnee Heights Friday night 44-0 in its season opener.
“It’s good that we got this first game under our belt — now there’s no more excuses,” Schartz said. “We’ve been through the routine, we’ve been on the bus and traveled, there’s no more excuses. The kids are just going to have to come together and grow up and play as a team for four quarters.
“There’s no doubt this team has what it takes, we’ve just got to find it and it’s got to be there for four quarters.”