The best poetry rhymes, and so, it seems, does the Manhattan High football season.
The No.-1-seeded Indians (11-0) are one win away from their first state championship game appearance since 2001, but in order to get there, they’ll have to go back to where it all started when No. 2 Derby comes to town Friday evening.
Manhattan upset the juggernaut Panthers (9-2) 26-23 in overtime in Week 1, a victory that shocked not only both communities, but the entire state. The win snapped a 46-game home winning streak for Derby that stretched back to 2014, and was just its seventh regular-season loss since 2013.
It was also a chance for the Indians to exorcise some of their own demons, as they entered that game having lost five in a row to the Panthers.
“It was huge for us,” said Manhattan head coach Joe Schartz. “The kids have commented and we talked about it all summer long that everybody in the state thought that we were going to lose to Derby. ... It catapulted us this season, gave our kids a lot of confidence. We’ve had a great season.”
The Indians have now won 10 straight since that game, and now the rematch comes with much higher stakes. As opposed to simply starting the year with a respectable loss, the loser of this contest will see its season end, while the winner is on to the state championship game in Emporia next Saturday.
The Panthers are no stranger to this situation. They’ve won six of the last nine state titles, and have played in every championship matchup since 2015. Last year, they were the state runners-up, falling to Blue Valley Northwest 41-21.
Derby has also been a thorn in Manhattan’s side in the postseason, having ended the Indians’ season five times in the past 11 years. Most recently, the Panthers throttled the Indians 56-0 in the 2019 sectionals.
“We knew immediately following the Week 1 victory that eventually we would play Derby again,” Schartz said. “They’re the rightful champs. They’ve dominated for years. It’s no mystery that the state championship runs through Derby.”
Key to this week’s game is the fact that Panthers senior starting quarterback Brock Zerger will be out after he broke his left fibula last week in their 36-21 win over No. 6 Washburn Rural.
This season, Zerger accounted for 1,123 passing yards, 1,083 rushing yards and 26 total touchdowns.
But that doesn’t mean the game will now be a cakewalk for Manhattan.
“I know that they’re going to have someone ready to go,” Schartz said. “When someone goes down, another guy steps up. They’ve got a great coaching staff, a great team, and they’re going to have something ready for us. ... It’s going to be difficult to stop, difficult to defend.”
Most likely, Derby will lean on senior running back Dylan Edwards, a one-time Kansas State commitment who is now headed to Notre Dame. He has rushed for 1,764 yards and 29 touchdowns on 170 carries this year, and gashed the Indians for 192 yards rushing and two scores on Sept. 2.
Schartz supposed that the Panthers might line up Edwards as the quarterback in a wildcat formation, but they very well could trust junior QB Braxton Clark to do some heavy lifting as well.
Clark has tossed for 239 yards passing, four touchdowns and zero picks in six appearances this season.
This will be the second time Manhattan has rematched with an opponent in the playoffs, as it took down Wichita Northwest 27-18 last Friday after beating the Grizzlies 56-28 three weeks prior.
The challenge for the Indians will be putting together a game plan against a team that already knows them well and has 10 additional weeks of film on them.
“You have to go in using what worked last time, but knowing that the other team’s going to be ready for it,” Schartz said. “You’re going to have to just put a different spin on it, show it a different way. But you can’t go away from what worked.”
Manhattan went off for 203 yards rushing and 126 yards passing against Derby last time out. It held the Panthers to 268 total yards, all but 32 of which came on the ground.
The Indians won that game despite losing the turnover battle 3-0, having a punt blocked and missing a field goal. It turned out the margin for error wasn’t as slim as it had originally seemed.
And Manhattan is a much better team than it was Week 1. The offense is crisper, the defense is hungrier, and all around, the squad has become adept at winning.
That is, of course, the result of the Indians’ tremendous hard work and focus, but to the outside observer, it seems almost automatic.
Now the question is, how far will that take them?
“We’ve had some great runs; we’ve won 10 games in a season several times,” Schartz said. “This is the first time since ‘88 that we’ve won 11 games. This season we’re taking it to another level. It’s a big game for the school, for the program, for the community, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
“We know that we have to play well, and that really comes down to preparation. I told them today that, if we prepare well, we’ll play well. And if we play well, I’m confident we’ll get it done.”