Manchester junior Preston Duffy extends over the goal line to score Manchester's first touchdown of the night. Photos by Gary Nieter
Manchester junior Preston Duffy extends over the goal line to score Manchester's first touchdown of the night. Photos by Gary Nieter
The Whitko Wildcats and Manchester Squires began their road to the IHSAA 2A Sectional 35 championship with a rematch of a game won 34-12 by the Squires back in Week 7. Manchester improved on the first result to win the rematch 36-6 on Friday night and advance to the sectional semifinal. The Squires are now 2-8 this season while the Wildcats end the year with an 0-10 mark.

“When we talked with our guys on Monday we stressed to them that whatever happened in Week 7 is irrelevant now, this is the tournament,” Squire head coach Alyx Brandewie said. “Our players embraced that from our seniors to our freshmen, and it showed tonight.”

The home team would start with the ball and would start with decent field position after a nice opening return by junior Skylar Zellers. It wouldn’t matter though, as the first pass thrown by Whitko quarterback Jack Hill would be intercepted by his opposing signal caller Brock Casper. A block in the back on the return would move the ball back, putting Manchester at its own 40.

An impressive opening drive for the Squires would follow. Sophomore running back Mason Rooney would handle most of the heavy work, rushing for 27 yards on the opening drive. Once the team had marched all the way to the 2-yard line, junior fullback Preston Duffy took over and scored the game’s opening points.

Zellers would get a chance to return the ensuing kickoff as well, and he made the most of the opportunity. Zellers would return the kick deep into Manchester territory, getting brought down at the 20. The Wildcat offense had better success on its second drive, but was still unable to get on the scoreboard. After a nice completion by Hill to sophomore Trevor Freel, the team was faced with a goal to go situation. The Manchester defense would not allow the team into the end zone, with Eli Metzger picking off Hill on fourth down to get his team the ball back.

Manchester’s first turnover of the game came just a few plays later. Flushed out of the pocket, Casper attempted a deep throw downfield that was intercepted by the Wildcats, giving the home team the ball at the 50. The first play of the drive resulted in a facemask, giving Whitko the perfect opportunity to strike. Once again, the Squire defense answered the call. The Wildcats would be stopped on the next four plays and turn the ball back over once again.

“Our guys never stop fighting, never give up. They’re always willing to keep pushing,” Brandewie said. “It starts with our two inside linebackers and the three guys up front. That’s four seniors and a junior, guys with experience. For us to have success tonight they needed to play well and they came up big for us.”

Just a few plays into the following drive, a screen pass from Casper to Reiss Gaerte saw Gaerte find some room and turn it up field for a 34-yard gain. Another facemask a play later would put the Squires into the red zone as the first quarter came to an end.

It took just a minute and thirty seconds of the second quarter for Manchester to get back into the end zone, this time Rooney taking it in from two yards out. The two-point conversion was good and the lead extended to 15-0.

Whitko’s next drive saw the team getting over a hurdle and finally picking up a fourth down conversion. After some nice runs by Freel, the home side once again found itself in the red zone. For the third time of the first half, the Manchester defense would pick up a huge stop with its backs against the wall. Freel finished his night with 63 yards on the ground.

With a few minutes before halftime, Casper and the rest of the Squire offense began to air it out. Casper completed his first three passes of the drive before a couple of drops forced the team’s first punt of the game. The Wildcats would keep it on the ground and run out the clock, sending the game to halftime.

Getting the ball to start the second half, it wasn’t exactly the smoothest start for the Squires. A bad snap would lose eight yards on the first play of the drive and an incompletion the play after would bring up a third and eighteen. But Manchester quickly shook off the rust, as Casper completed a 45-yard pass to sophomore Logan Eastgate to get the team out of the hole and into plus territory. The very next play, Casper would handle everything himself, evading defenders and taking the ball 39 yards for a score. The Squire quarterback threw for 143 yards on 14 attempts, completing seven.

With momentum firmly on their side, the Manchester defense went right back to work on the following possession, forcing the Wildcats to go three-and-out. The Squires would give the ball back to the home side in a hurry. After the first play of the drive went for 34 yards on a Rooney run, Duffy would finish the job with a 29-yard touchdown sprint to cap off a two play, 63-yard drive.

Whitko’s fourth down woes would continue on its next drive, where Hill would throw his third interception of the game, this time to Eastgate. The Squire offense would rinse and repeat its previous successes, feeding Rooney down the field before giving the ball back to Duffy from 10 yards out for his third score of the game and starting the running clock with the Squires up 36-0 and a minute remaining in the third quarter. Rooney finished his night with 149 yards and a score, Duffy with 53 yards and three.

“I was really excited about how hard our ball carriers ran tonight,” Brandewie said. “They were physical, downhill type of runs and that’s what playoff football is all about. We had two guys scratching and clawing for every foot tonight and I’m really pleased.”

The Wildcats would go out on a high note. On the team’s final drive of the game, Whitko put it together. Relying on the run, the home team was able to drive down the field, passing when needing to. After marching all the way down to the one, senior Cody Atkins would punch the ball in for the Wildcat’s lone score.

Manchester will host No. 7 Eastside next Friday.

“We’ll get into the film room tomorrow and the practice field Monday to get our guys as ready as they can be. I know our effort level is going to be great because that’s who these guys are,” Brandewie said.