The Manhattan football program has steadily been building under coach Chris Grabowska.
The Tigers have been perennial playoff contenders, but they’ve been unable to get past the quarterfinal round each of the past four seasons. They broke that curse last week with their 26-7 win over Missoula Loyola, and they now get to line up against Fairfield, the bar against which Class B football teams are measured in Montana, in the semifinal round.
“We respect their program a lot. Kind of almost in a sense look up to them, but you got to go into this week not just looking up to them, but now they’re kind of the enemy that you’re trying to beat. We expect to just treat it like another game,” Grabowska said. “We’re trying to prepare as well as we can this week and hopefully go up to Fairfield and come away with a victory.”
Two of those four past quarterfinal losses came at the hands of Fairfield, but this year’s Manhattan squad is different than those from years past. The Tigers, like Fairfield, are 10-0 this season and have been equally dominant.
For as much attention as the offense draws — and rightfully so with its ability to light up the scoreboard — Manhattan’s defense has been downright stingy the past few weeks. The Tigers have allowed just one touchdown in the playoffs and allowed more than two in only game during the season.
“They play physical, they rally to the ball well, they’re assignment-sound,” Grabowska said of the Tigers’ defense. “I think we do a great job of shutting down the run. You kind of force teams to pass a little bit. They’ve been playing extremely well. They’re just sound, they execute well, they’re well-coached on that side of the ball with (defensive coordinator Eddy Holgate) getting them ready to go.”
They’ll have their hands full on Saturday against Fairfield, which has scored 40 or more points in five games this season and has scored less than 34 just once — back on Sept. 13. It’s a lesson Manhattan learned the hard way in last year’s 34-6 quarterfinal loss to Fairfield.
“I thought we played them really tough last year. We played a great defensive game I thought. … I guess the lesson learned is we can’t give up big plays. We just have to execute and play our game and eliminate big plays and mistakes,” Grabowska said.
If the Tigers’ defense can do that, their offense seems likely to break through. The Tigers have proven this season that they can put points on the board in a hurry, frequently blowing games open with complementary football and scoring multiple touchdowns in a matter of minutes.
The offensive firepower starts up front with an experienced offensive line that returned four starters from last year, and there are some big-time players at the skill positions: Lane Veltkamp, Kyle Hotvedt, Garrit Weeda and Toby Veltkamp, among others.
“They’re excited. They’re just excited to have the opportunity to continue playing, excited to have the opportunity to go up to Fairfield and have a chance to try to beat the champions. It’s going to be a tall task, tough task. They’re a great team, well-coached,” Grabowska said. “But our kids, they’re just excited to have an opportunity to have a chance to do that.”
Kickoff between Fairfield (10-0) and Manhattan (10-0) is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Fairfield.