Just like it on so many Friday nights during the fall, Manhattan High’s football team took the field at Bishop Stadium last week. The lights were on, music was blaring, and the Indians were playing.
Not a game, but a practice.
The Indians already had played their final game of the regular season the night before, defeating Highland Park on the road 68-0.
This practice wasn’t necessarily for playoff preparation or even to get important reps. It was crucial for habit, though, head coach Joe Schartz said.
“We had a good time,” Schartz said before the team’s practice Tuesday. “We were able to practice with the freshmen, and the older kids were able to help them learn the drills. Overall, I think everybody had a good time. We were able to go good-on-good and accomplish a few things.”
On paper, it was unlikely Manhattan would lose the final two games of the regular season against Topeka West and Highland Park — they had a combined one win between them this season — but staying healthy was important, too. Now it’s time for the playoffs, Manhattan (7-1) has an opponent, Hutchinson (2-6), that is familiar to Schartz.
“I remember playing them when I was an assistant coach in 2005 and 2006,” Schartz said. “In the 2006 game, we went down there and lost 35-21. Neither team punted; we just got stopped twice on downs. (They) still (have) some of the same staff.”
Hutch plays the same way it did then, focusing on the run game and turning time-consuming drives into touchdowns while keeping the offense off the field. It’s similar to what the Indians like to do, though they have been more polished at doing so this season.
The Indians also accomplished their goal of escaping the final couple weeks unscathed, too.
“We have a few kids who are hurting, but not injured,” Schartz said. “Some time off has helped them get healthier. For being this deep in the year, we are pretty healthy.”
Hutch has a physical offensive line and a linebacker combination that is “the best” the Indians will have seen this season. Getting stops would be beneficial for the Indians, but Schartz thinks it may come down to takeaways, because both teams may not even reach 10 offensive possessions given their preference for controlling the clock.
“One of Hutch’s weaknesses is that they struggle with turnovers,” Schartz said. “So we need to put pressure on them and try to create turnovers defensively. Also, I think we have an advantage in our special teams. Hopefully that holds true and we can continue to make them turn the ball over.”
Schartz acknowledged that Hutch’s record isn’t eye-popping, but in the playoffs that doesn’t matter anymore. He brought up that Hutch nearly knocked off a talented Topeka High team in the first round of the 2018 playoffs.
Plus, the Indians’ coaching staff already has been surprised by some results in the past week. With the team having last Friday off, they got to pay attention to the other games.
“I think every coach had their iPad and their phones going just trying to keep up with several different games,” Schartz said. “One that was really surprising was the Junction City game against Emporia. We knew Lawrence and Lawrence Free State was going to come down to the wire, and somebody had to lose, so we had those scenarios figured out. But we didn’t have the Junction-losing-to-Emporia scenario. We didn’t count on that.”
Manhattan has matched up well in other mirror-like matchups this season. The run defense is a specialty, and it’s been the passing coverage that’s made the biggest improvements over the season, because Manhattan prides itself on the strength of the lines.
That doesn’t mean Hutch’s run offense isn’t a concern.
“It’s an interesting matchup, but they are just going to continue to stay with their philosophy and pound it,” Schartz said. “One thing we don’t want to have happen is to have someone run uncovered down the middle of the field on a play-action pass. That’s always a concern when you play a team like this, because you have to sell out to stop the run.”
Manhattan and Hutch play at Bishop Stadium at 7 p.m. Friday. The Indians will treat it as seriously as it has every game this season, Schartz said. He even used a recent game in Manhattan as an example of what not to do.
“You can’t afford to overlook anybody,” Schartz said. “I’ve been pointing toward OU and K-State. You want to be confident, but you don’t want to be confident to the point of arrogance. Hutchinson really has our respect, and we’ve seen on film how tough of a team they can be.”