For the third time in four years, Manhattan High football is headed to the sectional round of the Class 6A football playoffs, where it will face sixth-seeded Lawrence.
Similar to the Indians’ (9-1) regional opponent last week, Gardner-Edgerton, fellow Sunflower League resident Lawrence has seen some of the best talent in the state, with a strength of schedule that ranks as one of the toughest in all classes according to Kansas Pregame. Its two losses came to No. 1 in 5A Mill Valley (9-1) and a Shawnee Mission Northwest team (7-3) that also is still alive and in the championship hunt over on the east half of the 6A bracket.
The Lions beat Topeka 37-7 and Junction City 38-21 in the previous two rounds.
Lawrence (8-2) is led by senior quarterback Truman Juelsgaard, who is a true dual-threat signal caller.
“He’s pretty good,” Manhattan High head coach Joe Schartz said. “I’d say he’s probably the best quarterback that we’ve seen this year as far as being able to run and throw the ball. Any time someone is a dual threat, they become more difficult to defend. He’s gifted in both areas.”
Senior wide receiver Baylor Bowen, son of head coach Clint Bowen, stands 6-foot-4 and is the Lions’ top receiving threat, on par with some of the top pass-catchers Manhattan has seen this fall.
“We just can’t give them anything easy,” Schartz said. “No busted assignments or anything like that. They’re going to complete some passes, but we can’t let them get an easy touchdown. With us having to contain the quarterback run, it’s also going to be more difficult for us to stop the pass as well.”
The Lions’ offensive and defensive lines are anchored by 6-foot-4, 292-pound senior Noah Smith, who is a South Dakota commit. Last week, a smaller Gardner-Edgerton team compensated for its size by bunching both lines and attempting to overwhelm the Manhattan front. Lawrence brings a more standard approach to line play.
“They’re big up front, but they’re not the come -off-the-ball-and-gore-you type mentality like Garder-Edgerton was,” Schartz said. “We have to shift gears back to a more traditional offense, but nonetheless, they’re still difficult to defend, especially with their size on the offensive line.”
Behind that offensive line is Juelsgaard and senior running back Shance Wilkerson, a strong runner who poses a threat, especially when the Lions’ offensive line manages to open big gaps for him to get through.
“He runs the ball hard,” Schartz said. “I wouldn’t say that he’s super fast but he definitely runs downhill and benefits from his offensive line. They do a lot of split-zone. Their O-Line is big and powerful and they get a lot of movement upfront.”
Defensively, junior Lance Bassett and Kem Allen are the Lions’ main threats up front, while junior middle linebacker Kenton Simmons has elevated Lawrence’s defense to another level since taking over the spot midway through the season.
“I think their season really took off once they found (Simmons),” Schartz said. “If we’re going to be able to run the ball, we’re going to have to block him.”
Schartz also spoke highly of safeties Avion Nelson and senior Keyan Crawford.
Manhattan has been fortunate enough to avoid major injury issues that plagued the team in past seasons. The Indians even will get back senior edge rusher Da’Shawn Edwards after playing without him the last couple of games. He will help fill out Manhattan’s depth on the defensive front.
Senior tackle Cade McIlvaine was dinged up versus Gardner-Edgerton, but Schartz expects him to be good to go for Friday.
Schartz also mentioned the importance of avoiding turnovers, especially versus a Lawrence team that has capitalized this season on its opponent’s mistakes.
“We talk every week about protecting the football,” Schartz said. “There was one game of theirs that we watched earlier in the season versus Olathe North, who is a really good football team, where Lawrence won 17-15 and there were a couple of turnovers by North that were really costly. The difference in a game versus two really good teams was turnovers. We’ve got to protect the football.”
Friday’s game will kick off at 7 p.m. at Bishop Stadium.