Hartford football focused on next big test

Hartford quarterback Kyle Manning (hands off the ball to Aaron Sinclair during an Oct. 18 game at Decatur.

Last Friday’s come-from-behind victory for Hartford’s football team was enough to guarantee the Indians a playoff spot.

Now, after all of the excitement of the win, the Indians are ready to forget about it.

After starting 0-2, Hartford won six of its last seven contests, including three straight to close out the regular season.

The Indians’ most recent victory, a 14-12 win over White Pigeon that was put away by a last-minute touchdown run by quarterback Kyle Manning, sealed Hartford’s playoff fate: a trip to Schoolcraft to face the 8-1 Eagles in a Division 7 district semifinal.

The game is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. on Friday at Schoolcraft.

Despite the big win, coach Brad Manning said the Indians have long moved on from last Friday’s celebration.

“We’re actually trying to get them to forget about it,” he said. “What can happen sometimes is that you’ll ride that emotional wave, and when you get too high you crash. We really need them to forget about it and focus their energy on this game.”

Schoolcraft enters Friday’s game with just a single loss, the team’s best regular-season mark since going undefeated during the 2016 season.

The Eagles are averaging just shy of 49 points per contest. Hartford’s defense has given up only 24 total points its in six wins, including three shutouts. In its three losses, Hartford allowed an average of 48 points.

Manning said defense will be a focus for the Indians on Friday.

“(Schoolcraft does) a ton of stuff on offense — lots of different formations, lots of different plays,” said Manning. “It’s quite the daunting task when you look at all the stuff they can do. At the same time, hopefully we’re going to give them a different look (defensively) than what they’ve seen.

“I can’t tell you that were aiming for the shutout, but if we know where their playmakers are at, we can do our job and try to contain it a bit and try to keep in it.”

The Eagles are led by standout running back Kobe Clark, as well as quarterback Alex Thole.

Clark is the MHSAA record holder for most rushing touchdowns in a single game. He ran for nine in an early-season contest against Constantine last season.

Clark ended with 45 total touchdowns last season (sixth-best ever), and ended up scoring 270 total points.

Clark and Thole continue to generate a majority of Schoolcraft’s offensive production. Last week, the duo combined for 438 yards of total offense in the team’s only loss of the season, a 35-27 shocker to Kalamazoo United that saw United erase a 27-7 second-half deficit.

Manning said containing Clark and Thole will be a priority.

“Its tough,” Manning said. “The week before (Clark’s record-setting performance in 2018), (Thole) throws for over 400 yards. Our conference is a bit more run-heavy than they’re used to.

“We’re hoping that, by finishing drives, we’ll keep them off the field. If you keep Clark on the sideline, and when they’re on offense keep (Thole) in the pocket, you can give yourself a chance.”

The Indians will look to offset the Eagles’ production with their own duo.

Kyle Manning and running back Aaron Sinclair have helped pace the Indians’ offense all season.

Coach Manning said he expects the offense to continue to go through the pairing, but noted the ability of other players to make key plays as needed.

“If you’re scouting us, you’ll definitely notice Aaron and Kyle right away,” coach Manning said. “Elijah Ledesma and Dylan Voss have made lots of catches for us as well and have done some great things. What we’ve found is that moving Dylan and Elijah move around, we can manipulate how other teams move around and pay attention to them to open things up a bit.”

“Kyle has to be able to throw the ball,” Manning added. “If we can get our skill guys open and Kyle can hit them, we can score a bunch of points.”

Defensively, coach Manning and the Indians will turn to leading tackler Alex Cook. Cook, as well as Yair Delgado, are key players at the linebacker position.

“We have some solid linemen, too,” Manning added. “David Fernandez and Tanner Kinchen, they can move around anywhere on the line. If the (opposing) team shows they have a tendency to do a particular thing, that’s where (Fernandez and Kinchen) are going. Their job is to hold their their ground, and I think they do pretty good job at it.”

Hartford has not won a playoff game since the 2006 season when it topped Wyoming Lee 20-12 before falling in the second round.

Contact: bspencer@TheHP.com, 429-1294, @HPBenSpencer