KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill Utz knew going in to the season-opener that a good team would leave with a loss.
Coming off back-to-back state runnerup finishes, Platte County’s veteran coach understands the challenge of maintaining that momentum, especially when a newly minted Class 6 foe with a lot of returning talent in Week 1. The Pirates used a pair of big-play touchdowns from junior wide receiver Nate Walls on special teams and senior Cole Rhoden on offense to hang close into the third quarter, but Park Hill South used a pair of long touchdown runs sandwiched around a pick-six defensive score to pull away for a 42-14 win Friday at Park Hill District Stadium.
Earlier in the day, the Missouri State High School Activities Association announced the postseason assignments, and for the first time, Park Hill South moved from Class 5 to Class 6. That gave this year’s matchup a different feel after the teams entered the 2020 season-opener as potential foes in Class 5 District 8.
Platte County (0-1) lost its season-opener for the first time since 2008 at Belton in a what ended up a 5-6 season.
“You’re looking at a situation where you’re opening the season with a lot of new faces in some critical spots, and we needed to kind of see what they were made of,” Utz said after the loss to Park Hill South, which did not receive any votes in the first Class 6 Missouri Media State Poll but should draw more attention as the season goes along. “The unfortunate part is doing that against a pretty good team, a team that’s able to take advantage of some of the things we were trying to accomplish. You use it as a learning experience; you study it.
“In anything, you look and see what you can do better, challenge the kids to do so, and then it’s our job to make sure that they do that.”
Platte County struggled to consistently move the ball in senior quarterback Jared Parsons’ first start. Taking over for two-time all-state pick Chris Ruhnke, Parsons finished 11-for-28 for 171 yards but 93 came on the touchdown pass to Rhoden, who finished with 2 catches for 103 yards, midway through the second quarter.
Behind an experienced but retooled offensive line, Platte County’s running game also struggled with senior Ben McDaniel held to 42 yards on 14 carries (3.0 yards per carry), while Walls, playing a hybrid running back/receiver role, had one carry for 5 yards. Parsons added 7 yards on the ground on 11 attempts, five of which were scrambles.
Frequently behind in down and distance, Platte County converted just 2 of 11 third-down conversions and forced Parsons into a high number of pass attempts, often under pressure.
“(He’ll) be the first to tell you he’s got some things to work on, but I did think he did some good things,” Utz said.
Platte County’s offensive line featured returning starters in left tackle Joe Nicholson, left guard Caleb Kelley and center Connor Harmon — all seniors — while talented 6-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore Muyonta Maxwell went from contributor to the No. 1 right tackle. However, the Pirates also debuted senior Jaisyn House at right guard on the opening snap but also rotated in juniors Braden Parker and Sage Lutz, while Maxwell left for much of the second half with cramps, forcing junior Jackson Eller onto the right side against Park Hill South senior defensive end James Williams.
Park Hill South ended up with six total sacks with the heavy yard losses showing in Parsons’ running totals.
“We’ve got to get better at a lot of spots, and even our veterans that came back we’ve got to get better,” Utz said. “Offensive line is a position that’s close and dear to my heart, and it takes a little while and a lot of reps to really, really be good at. Did we see all bad things? No, we didn’t see all bad things, but we definitely have to gel a little bit sooner.”
Despite Platte County’s struggles on offense, Park Hill South (1-0) needed a pair of late second quarter field goals to take a 20-14 lead into halftime. The Pirates then took the ball out of halftime with a chance to cut into the gap, tie or take the lead and put together what would be their best sustained drive.
Parsons opened up a short, quick passing game and completed five passes — the first to Rhoden for 10 yards and then two each to junior wide receiver Carter Salzman and McDaniel. A 16-yarder to McDaniel and a 10-yard scramble from Parsons helped move the Pirates to the Park Hill South 10, and a play later, they lined up for second and goal at the 7 when a clock malfunction led to an interruption in play.
The clock unexpectedly stopped, and the officials then called for a water break on the overly heat evening while sorting out the issue. During the timeout, both coaching staffs came on the field with their players, but Utz ended up ordered back to his sideline by the back judge.
Utz protested, adamant he could be on the field during the stoppage, when the official threw a flag, but instead of a sideline warning, he issued an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Platte County’s coach. After further debate and discussion, the officials seemingly determined Utz was right about being able to have a place on the field during the water break but because he argued that right, the 15-yard penalty would stand.
“My first (unsportsmanlike) in 20 some years?” Utz said when asked about the sequence. “I can understand his point, but I don’t think I was wrong. I’ll take blame; I’ll take all the blame for it, but there was a lot of confusion. And a lot of confusion led to the outcome in my opinion.”
With the momentum of the drive lost, Platte County took a sack on second and goal from the 22, and Parsons’ third down pass fell incomplete. Rhoden, an all-conference kicker who entered with a career-long of 43, then missed a 41-yard attempt just right with his steps seemingly off. The Pirates then came up with a big play when sophomore defensive end Tucker McDowell fell on a fumbled snap with Park Hill South driving and threatening to take a two-score lead.
However, a few plays later Parsons fumbled the ball back, and Park Hill South junior running back Briggs Bartosh made the mistake count. He took a wildcat snap and bounced outside to the right, dodging a tackler and getting to the sideline, racing in for a 69-yard touchdown to make it 26-14 after a missed extra point with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.
Four plays later, Park Hill South added to the lead when a miscommunication on a pass play between Parsons and McDaniel allowed Panthers cornerback Chase Fitch to swoop in for an interception. He went 35 yards for a touchdown to increase the Pirates’ deficit to 33-14 just 10 seconds into the fourth quarter.
“I thought the second half, (Parsons) came out and took a challenge at halftime and was able to drive down and then we got the clock mishap and a bunch of different things that kind of stalled that drive out,” Utz said. “We were doing pretty good there, and even the next drive, he was able to get a drive going and then ended up we had a turnover.”
Platte County moved the ball best in the remainder on kick returns of 42 and 41 yards from Salzman, who also recorded a team-high five catches for 32 yards. Meanwhile, Bartosh added a 55-yard breakaway TD run with 6:05 to go on his way to 208 yards rushing on just 15 carries, and Park Hill South booted a short field goal with 19 seconds left in regulation for the last of 28 unanswered points after Rhoden’s second quarter touchdown.
Overall, Park Hill South rolled up 421 yards of offense, 300 on the ground. While star senior receiver and Division I recruit Media Reuben had three catches for 56 yards, Panthers senior quarterback Nathan Ricco went just 8-for-21 for 121 yards.
Last season, Platte County allowed more than 21 points just three times but including last year’s Class 5 Show-Me Bowl loss to Jackson has yielded 42 in back-to-back games. Trevor Scott, the Pirates’ star senior linebacker, led the defense with 11 tackles (two for loss) but also missed the final part of the second quarter with an apparent calf injury before returning in the second half. Cade Fowler, a senior safety, added 10 tackles (one for loss), while senior defensive end Jaydon Walls had four tackles and the lone sack on Ricco.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Park Hill South. They’re a good ball team, and I think we’ll bounce back and be fine,” Utz said. “There are a lot of kids back that are playmakers there (on defense) that we expect good things out of them, but let’s not discredit the four seniors we lost that are all playing college football right now. We’ve got some big holes that we’re filling that’s not an easy task to do against a very experienced offensive line at Park Hill South. They’ll get better and be able to adapt to it.”
Platte County jumped to almost the perfect start.
Park Hill South opened with a 5-yard procedure penalty and then a short run on first down. Chandavian Bradley, the Pirates’ breakout junior Division I recruit who finished with two tackles (one for loss), then went high to bat down a screen pass and an incompletion led to a punt.
Platte County converted an initial third down on a 7-yard completion from Parsons but then punted. However, Bartosh mishandled the catch on Rhoden’s high kick, and the ball sailed into the end zone.
In what ended up a scramble, Platte County senior tight end Brody Fulk tried to dive on the loose ball but instead pushed it to the back of the end zone where officials ruled Walls corralled it for a touchdown before going out of bounds. A transfer from Park Hill, Walls scored his second career touchdown and first with the Pirates, and incidentally, his first trip to the end zone last season came in a Park Hill road upset of eventual Class 6 state champion Raymore-Peculiar, meaning he had never scored in his previous home stadium before the fumble recovery in the end zone.
“For Nate, I know he’s nervous,” Utz said. “Then to open your first game with us and it’s on his field and then to get the first score? Yeah, that’s a pretty cool deal.”
Park Hill South answered with what might have been the defining drive of the game. The Panthers went 80 yards in just over 5 minutes with significant help along the way. Platte County committed back-to-back offsides penalties to turn third-and-long into a third-and-manageable that resulted in a first down and later committed pass interference and personal foul penalties to keep the march alive.
The drive ended with a scrambling third-down touchdown pass for 13 yards to high end Jack Bjorn.
At that point, Platte County had run just six offensive plays but was tied 7-7 with 3:01 left in the first quarter. The Pirates then went three-and-out, and Park Hill South again marched down the field. This time while lining up for a short field goal, the Panthers received a first down on another pre-snap penalty, and running back Darrien Jones, who finished with 70 yards on the ground, scored on a short run two plays later to make it 14-7.
The lengthy stints on the field tired out Platte County’s defense and forced a consistent rotation of defensive linemen. Holes eventually started to open up, forcing the defensive backfield into more tough spots. Pirates junior cornerback Garrett Smith made five tackles (two for loss), while senior safety Landon Fulk added four. Mar’Ques Brown, a junior defensive tackle making his first start, also finished with four tackles.
“Ultimately, as a coaches, we said whoever is going to be able to drive the ball early in the first half is going to be the team that’s going to be victorious because the defense is going to be gassed,” Utz said. “I think that happened to us a little bit. Our defense was on the field way too much, and even being as exhausted as they were, they were able to make some stops.”
The second touchdown for Platte County didn’t offer much of a reprieve either.
After an exchange of punts following Park Hill South’s second touchdown, Parsons and the Pirates’ offense ended up inside their own 10. A sack and a delay of game penalty made it second and 17 at the 1 when Parsons bravely scrambled out of the end zone for 6 yards. On the next play, he found Rhoden streaking across the medal, and the 6-1 senior’s full extension resulted in a catch. He then dashed up the middle of the field for his third career touchdown — and longest at 93 yards.
Platte County suddenly had more touchdowns than first downs and were level at 14-14 with 7:37 left before halftime.
“Parsons found Cole there on the long touchdown in the first half that was kind of a setup, and he was able to read that and find that,” Utz said of Parsons’ first career touchdown pass. “
Park Hill South turned its final two drives into short field goals from Reuben, a receiver/returner/kicker/punter for the Panthers, that resulted in the 20-14 lead that wouldn’t be relinquished. They went on to make it 2-2 between the two intra-county rivals in the last four meetings, having alternated wins the past four seasons.
After the game, Platte County started to turn the focus to a pivotal Suburban Conference Blue Division matchup with Kearney this week at Pirate Stadium in the home opener. The Pirates have won each of the past two in the Highway 92 rivalry series by lopsided margins but having been assigned again to Class 5 can’t afford a slip-up against their Class 4 foe.
Platte County, Class 4 state runnerup in 2019 and Class 5 runnerup in 2020, earned just two votes and were on the outside of the top 10 in the first Class 5 Missouri Media State Poll. The questions will be obvious following the loss to Park Hill South, and the task doesn’t get easier. The opening stretch of games that started with potential Class 6 dark horse Park Hill South and continues with a rival that’s dominated them for the majority of the past two decades between the two teams will also include Class 5-ranked North Kansas City in Week 4, Class 4 No. 1-ranked Smithville in Week 5 and Grandview, which won Class 4 District 7 a year ago, in between.
“As I explained to them, it is what it is Week 1 against a really quality opponent, against a team we’re not going to see in districts,” Utz said. “It doesn’t even affect our district play so it literally has no bearing on what we can accomplish from here on out. In that case, it makes Week 1 OK to go up against (Park Hill South) because now you can see what was exposed, and we can take care of right away.”