Joe Schartz is hoping for focus this week.
The Manhattan High football coach sees Friday’s matchup with Washburn Rural as a potential trap game for his team.
Rural (4-3, 3-1 Centennial) was routed last week by Junction City in a surprisingly lopsided game. A win against Rural (and a subsequent win by Junction City over Topeka High) would set Manhattan up for a winner-take-all game with its rival with everything on the line — district title, league championship and the Silver Trophy.
But all that would change should the Indians overlook the Junior Blues this week.
“I know that Junction City beat them last week,” Schartz said. “But this is a Washburn Rural team that is a good opponent, for sure. It’s not going to be easy. Once again, we’re playing the role of the favorite. We have to learn to play with a big target on our chest.”
Making things even tougher for Schartz and the coaching staff is this week’s schedule. The district doesn’t have school on Friday, so the typical gameday routine will be different. It’s also Senior Night for the Indians.
“We’ve been harping on the boys to keep their focus,” he said. “They can’t let any of those activities or the schedule to interfere with what’s important.”
Rural has been up and down this season. It lost to Blue Valley West and Topeka Hayden early in the season, but seemed to have figured it out in the last couple weeks, beating Shawnee Heights and Topeka Seaman before getting blown out by Junction City.
Part of the problem for the Junior Blues is their youth.
“They’re a young team,” Schartz said. “Out of 22 spots on offense and defense, he’s starting six seniors. They’ve got quite a few juniors and some sophomores out there playing for him.”
Rural uses a pair of quarterbacks in junior Michael Singer and sophomore Blake Peterson. Schartz expects them to be similar to Manhattan, trying to establish the run game and taking what the defense gives.
Rural has the size advantage as well, led by Earl Mariner, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound lineman, the younger brother of K-State lineman Tomasi Mariner.
Defensively, the Junior Blues are led by a pair of talented linebackers in Brodie Cronister and Chandler Kayser, though Cronister has struggled with injuries this year and had to come out of the Junction City game last week.
“They’ve had some trouble with injuries,” Schartz said. “So whether or not they get healed up for our game, I don’t know.”
Regardless of who takes the field for Rural, Schartz hopes his team handles success better than it did at the beginning of the year. He pointed to Week 2’s letdown against Emporia as an instance of this same group not playing well after earning a big win the week before.
“You have to be motivated,” he said. “It was easy to get motivated for the (Topeka High) game. The last time we went into a big game, we’d won against Mill Valley, they were a quality opponent. We performed well, and obviously, we didn’t handle prosperity very well going into the Emporia game.
“I think we’re back there now.”
In addition to bolstering its playoff hopes, the Indians should be motivated to win for their seniors.
Schartz said he’s especially proud of this group’s ability to handle adversity.
“It’s a class that in the lower levels had some success, but not a lot,” he said. “They continued to work and continued to trust their coaches, and they’ve developed themselves into quite a nice team. A ton of credit has to go to those boys for sticking it out and continuing to work and get better — to get to the point where they are now.
“My hope is they aren’t satisfied with that. It is possible for them to accomplish a lot more if they stay focused.”