There were two chances to put the Class 5 quarterfinal away, but even with Platte County clinging to a tenuous three-point lead, coach Bill Utz didn’t feel the nerves.
Burnt by big plays throughout the first half, Platte County’s defense stood up to Grain Valley time and time again in the final two quarters Friday night at Pirate Stadium. A second-half shutout allowed the Pirates enough time to complete a comeback for a 31-28 victory. They scored 17 unanswered in the second half to overcome a 28-14 halftime deficit, and junior wide receiver and kicker Cole Rhoden’s no-doubter 43-yard field goal with 5 minutes, 44 seconds left provided the winning points.
Platte County then forced turnovers on each of Grain Valley’s final three possessions, the second coming on a desperation lateral attempt after the final seconds had ticked away.
“I’m great. I really am,” said Utz, who leads Platte County to the state semifinals for the third time in four seasons — this being the inaugural Class 5 trip in the Pirates’ first season above Class 4. “My heart rate was higher when I was in the locker at halftime than when I was out here.”
Platte County senior quarterback Chris Ruhnke put up another valiant performance on a lengthening list of memorable showings for the second-year starter. He finished 22 of 42 overall for 327 yards with four touchdowns — two in each half — to four different receivers. Early scoring tosses to senior wide receivers Dayton Mitchell (five catches, 51 yards) and Joey Schultz (four catches, 49 yards) helped the Pirates bolt to a 14-0 lead, and touchdown connections with sophomore Carter Salzman (four catches, 63 yards) and senior Colby Rollins (five catches, team-high 103 yards) in the third quarter erased Grain Valley’s halftime advantage.
Ruhnke spread out his 22 completions to eight different receivers with junior running backs Ben McDaniel (30 yards) and Cayden Davis (11 yards) plus Rhoden (11 yards) and senior wide receiver Kevin Hughes (9 yards) each totaling one reception apiece.
Facing the second-half deficit, Ruhnke took some words from quarterbacks coach Wayne Baskerville to heart in leading Platte County back and extending the season for for at least one more game. Ruhnke also put his faith in a defense that recorded back-to-back shutouts to end the regular season against Raytown South and Lansing, shut out North Kansas City in the second half of a Class 5 District 8 semifinal comeback win and in the first half of a blowout of Staley just last week.
“Our defense has played amazing all year,” Ruhnke said. “We trusted that so long as we kept good field position, eventually, we’d get a field goal or punch one in the end zone. … It is super fun. Coach B told me at halftime, he was like, ‘Comebacks are the most fun games,’ and then yeah, this was probably one of the most fun games all year I’ve played in.”
Often scrambling and showing off an unteachable pocket awareness, Ruhnke made play after play to keep Platte County in the game with limited production from the run game. In the process, he went to 5,637 career passing yards and moved past Justin Mitchell (2014-2016) as the all-team leader in that category for the Pirates. Justin Mitchell finished his career with 5,563 yards (career-high 2,544 as a senior) and a record 59 career touchdown passes with Ruhnke at 49 in that category — third all-time, also behind Brandon Gutshall’s 56 from 1998-2000.
Ruhnke has thrown for over 300 yards three times this season but had not hit the mark since doing it twice in three weeks to start the season — a season-high 365 in a Week 1 win over Park Hill South and 361 two weeks later in the lone loss of the season to North Kansas City.
Even after Ruhnke’s fast start, Platte County (11-1) — now winners of eight straight — created some frustration going into halftime.
Grain Valley (10-2) scored 28 unanswered points — 21 in a frenetic second quarter — to take the two-touchdown lead. The last blow came on a 75-yard touchdown pass from 6-foot-5 senior quarterback Cole Keller to speedy junior wide receiver Logan Pratt on the final play of the second quarter.
Keller went 3-for-4 passing for 152 yards and three touchdowns in the first half — all to Pratt — and added a 52-yard touchdown run in Grain Valley’s typically run-heavy offense. Platte County’s defense surrendered 280 yards of offense to the Eagles before halftime and 204 came on scoring plays of 54, 52, 23 and 75 yards.
The big shot to Pratt came seconds after Rhoden scuffed a 39-yard field goal attempt that came up well short with Platte County trying to close within 21-17.
“You go from missing a field goal to giving up the touchdown to giving them the ball in the second half. That’s a pretty bad stretch; that’s a pretty rough stretch,” Utz said. “But at the same time, we knew if the defense could come out and get a stop, we’re right back in it. There’s plenty of time. We preached that there’s plenty of time, but we’re going to have to play better.
“And they did.”
The first crack for Grain Valley came on the opening kickoff in the third quarter when returned Keegan Hart mishandled the catch, and Platte County brought him down at the 5. The Pirates then forced a quick three-and-out, and the short punt set them up at their own 49.
Platte County needed six plays — all dropbacks for Ruhnke — to cut the deficit in half. He converted a third and 20 with a 30-yard completion along the visitor’s sideline to Salzman to avoid a punt after taking a sack on second down.
“I missed (Salzman) earlier in the game on the same play, and we ran it again,” Ruhnke said. “At the last second I saw him, and yeah, my eyes just lit up.”
On the next play, Salzman snared another pass on an out route, turned up field and dove to the pylon for a 15-yard touchdown — surprisingly his first receiving touchdown of the season for the sophomore. He now has 27 catches on the season — third on the team behind Dayton Mitchell and Rollins — but scored on rushing touchdowns against Ruskin and Raytown South in back-to-back weeks for his only other two touchdowns this season.
“It was nice to see him finally get his first touchdown,” Ruhnke said. “I always mess with him about not having any (receiving) touchdowns.”
Platte County was within 28-21 with 8:03 to go, but Grain Valley responded with its best drive of the second half. A 27-yard completion from Keller to senior running back/wide receiver Parker Bosserman moved the Eagles across midfield.
Three plays later and after a false start penalty, Grain Valley faced a fourth and 13 at Platte County’s 48, and the Eagles attempted a fake punt pass with Bosserman, who played quarterback at the end of 2019 after an injury to Keller, that missed an open receiver and fell incomplete.
Ruhnke made the gamble hurt with his best throw of the night. Platte County had a pair of false start penalties on the first two first down snaps of the drive and needed a fourth-down completion for a first down to Salzman to overcome the second one. After a holding penalty on the next play made it first and 26, Ruhnke dropped a pass over the shoulder of Rollins in the end zone behind double coverage for a 40-yard scoring play that tied it at 28-28 with 1:54 left in the third quarter.
“Colby’s one of those guys who I trust him if I go put it out there, he’ll run it down,” Ruhnke said. “Whenever they come down with those, it’s just an awesome feeling.”
Grain Valley wouldn’t come close to scoring in the game’s remainder, but field position became the key. The teams traded punts, and Platte County’s downed the Eagles at their own 3. They promptly went three and out, and a 12-yard punt return from Salzman put the Pirates at the Grain Valley 29.
Platte County didn’t make a first down on the ensuing drive, but Rhoden calmly drilled his 43-yard field goal try with room to spare.
“The 43-yarder, I was just thinking — nothing’s going through my head — just focused on making it. I had to get redemption from the other one,” Rhoden said. “It felt good. It had some distance on it. After we looked, it was about three-quarters up (the goalposts). It might have been good from 50.”
Platte County junior safety Cade Fowler (nine tackles) and senior defensive end Forrest Boynton (six tackles) brought Keller down on the fourth play of the next drive resulting in his second critical fumble.
“(Keller) is a great frickin’ athlete so I just saw an opportunity,” Fowler said. “He kind of held the ball up here, so I just kind of shot my helmet in there and kind of hit it out — tried to hit him as hard as I could, basically.”
Boynton made his fourth fumble recovery of the season and second in two weeks, scooping the ball up with no one in front of him. He returned the ball 12 yards before being brought down at the 26.
“Effort. Coach (Eric Mitchell) said, ‘Run to the ball; run to the ball; you might get it; linemen, you might get it,” and whoever gets it, run,” said Boynton, who thought he might score on the play — one week after falling on a fumble at the 1 to start a pivotal sequence of scores that led the Pirates to a 33-13 blowout of Staley in the Class 5 District 8 title game.
Platte County couldn’t take advantage of the field position. The Pirates started with a false start penalty and didn’t recover, and back-to-back incompletions from Ruhnke resulted in a turnover on downs.
Grain Valley didn’t go anywhere either, and Platte County senior safety Collin Tyson picked off a desperation pass down the field from Keller. The Pirates couldn’t run out the final 2:12 and punted the ball back after three run plays with 1:07 to go and Grain Valley out of timeouts.
Grain Valley reached Platte County’s 40 and spiked the ball with 3 seconds left to try one last play, but a short pass followed by two laterals — the second fumbled and recovered by Dayton Mitchell in on defense as a cornerback — ended up with the Pirates’ rushing the field in celebration.
“It was pretty crazy, all that stuff that happened in the second half,” Fowler said. “First half wasn’t very good, so we got in the locker room talked about stuff, got our butts ripped — not gonna lie — but we came back. The momentum was awesome.”
In the second half, Platte County allowed only 74 yards of offense after yielding scoring drives of four plays, three plays, two plays and two plays in the first half. Grain Valley finished with 34 rushing attempts for 126 yards, but 52 came on Keller’s 52-yard touchdown scamper up his own sideline on the first play of the second quarter.
Without that run, Grain Valley’s 3.7 yards per attempt went down to 2.2.
Platte County’s high-production defensive line accounted for only one sack — shared by senior defensive tackle Alex Stearns and sophomore defensive back Cameron Wolfe — but rolled up 11 tackles for loss. Pirates junior linebacker Blaine Keuhn led the way with four, while Fowler and junior defensive end Jaydon Walls added two apiece. Stearns, senior defensive tackle Keaton Smith and senior defensive back Luke Filger chipped in one each.
Filger and Keuhn tied Fowler for the team-high with nine tackles, while Platte County junior back Trevor Scott and Boynton had six apiece with Stearns adding five and Tyson four in another balanced effort.
“It was pretty crazy, all that stuff that happened in the second half,” Fowler said. “First half wasn’t very good so we got in the locker room talked to all the coaches about stuff, got our butts ripped; I’m not gonna lie. We came back. The momentum was awesome.”
This matchup differed from the two a year ago against Grain Valley, which took early leads in both and lost the lead late. Platte County scored 18 unanswered in the fourth quarter to win the regular season matchup 18-17 and pulled away for a 38-21 in a Class 4 quarterfinal.
With both teams moving up to Class 5 to make this a unique playoff rematch, Platte County bolted to a 14-0 lead after just 6:16 of game time.
Ruhnke led a dominant opening drive that included completions of 10 and 23 yards to Schultz and a 19-yard touchdown pass to Dayton Mitchell breaking wide open over the middle to make it 7-0. Four plays later, Scott reached around to punch the ball loose from Keller on a keeper, and Tyson recovered near midfield.
A 36-yard completion to Rollins moved Platte County into the red zone and set up a 5-yard touchdown pass on third-and-4 to Schultz — a 6-6 first-year player — on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone. The Pirates wouldn’t score again for more than 20 minutes of game time and ended up in another comeback situation against Grain Valley, and the passing game became the necessary featured part of the offense.
“We came out strong — wish we could’ve done it the rest of the first half and who knows what the score would’ve been,” Ruhnke said. “But we went into halftime; they talked about all the adjustments we needed to make and then I think we came out played with a lot of heart in the second half.”
Platte County ran for just 23 yards on 22 attempts with Davis leading the way at 20 yards on 11 carries, one week after running for a season-high 128 vs. Staley. McDaniel added 9 yards on three attempts, while lost yardage for Ruhnke on sacks taking away the rest.
For the second straight week, Platte County played without senior right tackle Colby Guffey, and junior Joe Nicholson stayed shifted over from right guard to replace him. That meant junior Connor Harmon made a second straight start at guard after serving as a backup defensive tackle for the majority of his first two seasons.
While senior Trey Butcher (left tackle) and senior Jesse Schillinger (center) stayed in place, Platte County continued to overcome its losses. Grant Gomel, a senior, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4 to force the first shuffle, and junior Caleb Kelley continued to start at the other guard spot, although freshman Muyonta Maxwell also rotated in again.
With Guffey expected back in this weekend’s Class 5 semifinal at Webb City, Kelley, Harmon and Maxwell could all see time at left guard.
“I haven’t really thought about it until you asked that question, but that’s really a pretty good reflection of our whole team,” Utz said. “We’re always a little bit undersized; we’re always a little bit, maybe, not as fast as everybody. There’s always those things we lack, but they do have a lot of character and they have a lot of grit.
“They’ve taken a lot of criticism from our staff as the games go on, and they just keep fighting. You have to give them credit. You can’t go 11-1 and not have an offensive line that can get some things done.”
Platte County will face a familiar road trip for the 1:30 p.m. semifinal.
Webb City, which also moved up to Class 5 this season, advanced back to the semifinals with a 42-14 win over Lebanon in the opposite quarterfinal Friday night. Platte County and Webb City will now play for the third time in four seasons with the Cardinals having won a tight semifinal matchup between the two teams in 2017 and taking a decisive 48-0 victory over the Pirates in last season’s Class 4 Show-Me Bowl.
“I think everyone is excited to get another shot at them this year,” Ruhnke said. “I can’t wait. It’ll be a fun game.”