Preview: Free State football faced with daunting task at reigning state champion Manhattan

photo by: Chance Parker/Special to the Journal-World

Free State senior Wesley Edison runs with the ball during the Class 6A State Playoffs against Garden City on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.

The Free State football team aims to keep its playoff run going this week, as it takes on Manhattan in the regional round of the 2023 6A KSHSAA football playoffs Friday at 7 p.m. at Manhattan High School.

After a dominant 42-21 first round victory for the Firebirds (7-2) over Garden City, FSHS looks to dethrone the defending state champions despite the Indians (8-1) winning their last five games, including a resounding 69-14 win over Wichita-Southeast in the opening round of postseason play.

“I thought last week was a really good game,” FSHS coach Kevin Stewart said. “What we did last week was play assignment football. I think that’s one thing we can build on for this week because we’re going to have to do the same thing.”

Following up last week’s performance this Friday night will be no easy task for the Firebirds, who accumulated 365 yards of total offense against the Buffaloes and led 42-0 after just three quarters of play.

Despite a tougher opponent in Manhattan lined up, Stewart feels confident that his group continues to play its best football at the right time, as it aims to take down the second-seeded Indians on the road at Bishop Stadium.

“The first thing is we have to have the mindset of trying to win the game,” Stewart said. “We have to have a tough mindset. If we are able to match their physicality then I think we can win the game. If we let them bully us around a little bit it will be a hard game.”

If Free State wants to pull off the upset, quarterback and senior leader Wesley Edison will have to continue performing at a high level, following his near 250 yards of total offense recorded against Garden City at home.

Edison has registered close to 2,500 yards of total offense since the start of his senior campaign, and will certainly be a focal point of the team’s game plan against a tough and gritty Indians defense.

“In order for us to win he needs to be as good as he is,” Stewart said. “We think he’s a really good football player and when it comes to big games, guys like him have to step up and win the football game for us. We’re hoping he has a good game and he plays hard.”

As for Manhattan High, the defending state champions’ only loss came at the hands of No. 1 Washburn Rural, which is the lone team undefeated in all of the 6A playoffs.

Led by an aggressive defense and an athletic offense, the Firebirds will have their work cut out for them, but feel they will be up for the task of trying to advance to the sectional round of the KSHSAA football playoffs.

“They have a very good secondary and very good linebackers that are aggressive and fast,” Stewart said. “Their offense has a very good scheme and their players are good on offense too. They’re definitely good but I think our players match up with them as far as abilities go. It’s going to be a tough game.”

With the Firebirds still riding high in postseason play, the message remains clear, and that is to survive and advance to keep their season alive for at least one more week.

“I’ve told the guys our record and their record is 0-0,” Stewart said. “We have to immediately set the tone physically and it’ll come down to situational football. We just have to battle.”


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