It’s beginning to feel a bit like 1988 in the Little Apple.
Top-seeded Manhattan High football secured its berth in the 6A state championship game Friday with a 28-23 come-from-behind victory over No. 2 Derby in the sub-state round.
The win was historic in multiple ways. With it, the Indians moved to 12-0 for the second time in school history and the first time since 1988, the year of their last state championship. It was also their first time winning a state semifinal game since 2001, years before any of the 2022 squad’s players were born.
It was also their second win over the 6A juggernaut Panthers (9-3) this season, and it broke Derby’s streak of seven straight appearances in the state title game.
But at halftime, the chances of Manhattan prevailing seemed slim.
The Indians trailed 16-7 after two quarters of play, though that deficit seemed much larger considering that the Panthers had outgained Manhattan 228-67.
In their first five possessions, the Indians had gone three-and-out three times, lost a fumble and turned it over on downs. Derby, meanwhile, had scored touchdowns on their second and third drives of the game.
In the locker room during intermission, head coach Joe Schartz saw hints of something he has rarely seen from his team this season: doubt. He didn’t really have a rousing halftime speech either, at least nothing remarkably different from the same message he and his coaching staff have preached all season.
And yet, the Indians came out and outscored Derby 21-7 in the second half en route to the win.
As with so many wildfires and revolutions, it started with a single spark.
After winning the coin toss and deferring, the Panthers received the ball first in the third quarter. On the third play of the possession, Manhattan linebacker Ben Irvine picked off Derby quarterback Braxton Clark at the 17-yard line and returned the ball to the Panthers’ 3.
On the very next play, running back DeAndre Aukland took a handoff into the end zone to draw the Indians within two points at 16-14 with just over two minutes gone in the second half.
“You could just feel the momentum swing,” Schartz said. “You feel the kids get energy and belief. That was definitely the turning point of the game.”
The touchdown was Aukland’s second of the contest after he scored from 12 yards out in the second quarter.
After the Manhattan defense forced back-to-back Derby punts, Aukland picked up the hat trick with a 69-yard touchdown carry to give the Indians their first lead with under a minute to play in the third.
Aukland rolled up 142 yards rushing on 10 carries before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent upper-body injury.
“DeAndre ran very hard, broke a lot of tackles,” Schartz said. “He’s a heck of a running back. He did jumpstart us. He played very hard. He played very well.”
Clark — who was filling in for Brock Zerger, who broke his leg last week — went out in the third quarter and did not return, and the Panthers turned to sophomore Easton Splane at quarterback.
Splane led a handful of fruitless drives before Derby moved Notre Dame-committed running back Dylan Edwards into the wildcat QB spot. That simplified the Panthers’ offense and allowed Manhattan to feast.
“By that time, the kids were really energized,” Schartz said. “We had the momentum. I really felt like at that time, it wasn’t just our linebackers and safeties making plays. I felt like at that time our defensive line was starting to dominate their offensive line.”
Edwards finished with 115 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 30 carries, an average of 3.83 yards per attempt. He entered the game averaging 10.4 yards per carry.
Seven of his running plays went for losses.
“I feel like he thought he was going to run all over the place and he didn’t know what to do after,” said Indians linebacker Jaxon Vikander. “We have a great D-line, great outside backers keeping him contained, so it was easy for everybody else.”
Manhattan scored its final touchdown of the game when quarterback Keenan Schartz scrambled into the end zone from 19 yards out, making it 28-16 Indians with 5:22 left on the clock.
For its part, Derby pulled back a touchdown when Edwards scored from 4 yards away after being set up by a 50-yard carry by Derek Hubbard.
That cut Manhattan’s advantage to 28-23 with 4:20 to play.
However, the Panthers elected not to attempt an onside kick. The Indians took the ball and picked up three first downs, which allowed them to run out the clock and begin the celebration.
“I’m just thanking God right now that all that work we put in over the summer transferred to the season,” said cornerback Dante Walters. “I’m just ready for the ‘ship.”
Derby outgained Manhattan 344-287 in the game, although the Indians had a 220-116 edge in the second half.
Keenan Schartz ran 13 times for 63 yards and went 8-of-13 passing for 52 yards and an interception. Joe Schartz said that, although Manhattan wanted to pass in the game, the extremely cold temperates made that less than ideal.
Jason Sanchez contributed 30 yards rushing on 10 carries.
The Indians averaged 6.24 yards per play while the Panthers put up 5.55 yards per play.
“We have tonight to celebrate,” Vikander said. “Tomorrow, we get back to work: wake up, watch film, get to work, stretch, get moving. And then next week, we’re getting back to it.”
Now it all comes down to one more game: a matchup with Gardner-Edgerton next Saturday at Welch Stadium in Emporia for the 6A title.
As the No. 4 seed out of the 6A East region, the Trailblazers (9-3) are a bit of a surprise championship game opponent after they beat No. 6 Olathe Northwest 56-7 on Friday.
What Manhattan does against Gardner-Edgerton will determine whether 2022 is more like 1988 or 2001. Anyone cheering for the Indians is going to hope it’s a little more late-stage Cold War and a little less incipient War in Afghanistan.
“We came into this week with the same goal: to go 1-0,” Joe Schartz said. “Next week’s not going to be any different. There’s only one game left, so we’re going to have to do everything that we can as far as game plan and preparation and focus so that we can go 1-0 next week.”