For a moment, Spencer Cupp seemed to have a potentially tenuous grip on Platte County’s season — a Staley wide receiver potentially slipping away with a chance to change the course of Friday’s Class 5 District 8 championship game at Pirate Stadium. The Pirates’ senior cornerback, who has moved from linebacker to safety to his current position in three seasons, held tight in the key moment.
Eventually, Staley senior wide receiver Rajon Hill relented his grip on the ball as Cupp brought him down by his jersey, and Platte County senior defensive end Forrest Boynton fell on the fumble at the Falcons’ 1. Pirates senior running back Cayden Davis scored on the next snap to create a two-score lead late in the second quarter — part of a game-altering 3 minutes.
Platte County pulled away for a 33-13 victory behind five turnovers and a blocked punt, but the impressive result might not have been without Cupp’s unorthodox forced fumble.
“I knew it was pretty much me or the goal line,” Cupp said of his tackle with a lot of open field behind him. “I knew I had to make a play right there. He almost had me, but I held on for dear life. I was able to make a play and get the ball out, and we scored a touchdown off of it.”
Platte County (10-1) earned a second straight playoff appearance — and first ever for the program in Class 5 — with the blowout victory. The Pirates have reeled off a seven-game winning streak going into this week’s state quarterfinal at home against former Suburban Conference Blue Division foe Grain Valley (10-1).
Winners of Class 4 districts in both 2017 and 2019, Platte County seeks to make the semifinals for the third time in four seasons coming off of last year’s run to the Class 4 Show-Me Bowl. The Pirates moved up to Class 5 for the first time ever this season, and third-seeded Staley (7-5) presented a unique postseason challenge. The Falcons were 6-0 all-time in the series between the two teams, having won regular season matchups in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2017.
“Staley’s a team that is always here; they’re always in the championship so they’re not going to be intimidated by coming into our place or anything like that because they expect to be here,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “So we had to come out and play really well, and I thought we did. Very satisfying to get to this point — to have the success we had in Class 4 last year and get back to this spot and being able to keep it going.”
Platte County did play well, but the two teams combined for six turnovers and senior Collin Tyson’s blocked punt in the first half. The Pirates ended up on the better side of the back-and-forth giveaways.
Initially, Platte County drove into the red zone and down to the 1 with a 7-0 lead but made a potentially critical mistake on third and goal. Davis and senior quarterback Chris Ruhnke fumbled an exchange while attempting to quickly run the play with Staley’s defense on its heels, and the Falcons recovered at the 2.
Two plays later, Staley senior quarterback Jehr Fowler faced pressure and attempted to roll left before throwing back right to Hill, who had two blockers in front of him and only Cupp to beat. Cupp’s tackle attempt gave way to a grab of the jersey, and as Hill’s legs bent awkwardly underneath him, the ball came loose.
Davis, who finished with a season-high 128 rushing yards on 23 carries, powered into the end zone from the same spot where he lost the ball moments earlier to make it 14-0 with 2:20 left before halftime.
“Having the fumble on our end and being able to get it right back, that’s huge,” Utz said. “I knew once we got up a couple scores, we’d be in decent shape.”
And Platte County wouldn’t go into halftime with just a two-possession lead.
After a short kickoff return, Staley started the next drive at its own 12, and Platte County junior linebacker Blaine Keuhn (three tackles) recorded one of the Pirates’ seven sacks. Fowler then dropped back into the end zone on the next play, and junior defensive end Jaydon Walls (five tackles, one for loss) and sophomore defensive end Chandavian Bradley combined on another sack, this one for a safety to make it 16-0 with 1:33 left in the second quarter.
Staley then kicked the ball away, and Ruhnke, who finished 9 of 21 for 121 yards, led Platte County on a quick 48-yard drive. Pirates junior kicker and wide receiver Cole Rhoden calmly knocking through a 29-yard field goal — despite Staley taking all three timeouts prior to the final play of the second quarter.
“Finally, I told Cole on the third one, I looked at him and said, ‘I guess they don’t know who they are dealing with here do they?” Utz said. “And he lined up and kicked the thing. He’s probably the most confident kicker I’ve had in a long time, so I knew he was going to make it. I was like let’s just kick the darn thing.
“That was big because it put us up three possessions, and of course, a game like this, three possessions was going to go pretty far.”
Just like the start of the game, the two teams exchanged punts to start the second half, and Staley’s predicament became worse on its second possession of the third quarter.
Platte County sophomore defensive back Garrett Smith stepped in front of a third-down pass from Fowler and nabbed his second interception of the game. Smith, who added six tackles (five solo) returned this one 31 yards untouched for an apparent touchdown only for a flag to be thrown on the play with his celebration perhaps starting a bit too early when he raised the ball into the air on his clear path into the end zone.
Officials eventually gave Smith a post-play unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and the play stood with Platte County up 26-0 with 8:00 left in the third quarter.
“(Garrett) gives so much effort, works so hard in practice every day, and he just has a lot of energy and he brings that vibe to the team,” said Platte County senior safety Collin Tyson, who recorded five tackles — a team-high three for loss and escorted his younger teammate into the end zone on the play. “He gets hype, and I love it. I always try to help him out, talk to him and just lead him to be great.
“I can’t blame him. I was celebrating, too, there. I waved and put my hands up. It was just exciting. We’ll learn from it, but it happens.”
Staley answered with a 59-yard touchdown pass on the next possession to briefly cut the deficit to 26-7, but the Falcons managed just 222 yards of offense — another large chunk coming on a 27-yard touchdown run for junior David Brooks late in the fourth quarter.
The second score came after Platte County put the game away on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Ruhnke to wide-open senior wide receiver Colby Rollins on the final play of the third quarter.
“(Staley’s defensive back) had to make a choice, and he made the wrong one,” said Rollins, who led Platte County with three catches for 71 yards. “He hesitated too long and left me wide open. (Chris) threw it up, and I had two or three steps on him.”
Platte County’s defense then sealed the win with a third interception. Cupp picked off a long pass and recorded his second forced turnover of the game and made it consecutive weeks with an interception after nabbing one on North Kansas City’s opening drive a week earlier in a district semifinal win.
The defense remained balanced with senior defensive tackle Keaton Smith and senior safety Luke Filger recording a team-high seven tackles apiece. Filger also had two sacks and an interception in his best game to date, and Walls added a pair of sacks, as well. Keaton Smith and junior linebacker Trevor Scott (four tackles) had one apiece.
Platte County senior defensive tackle Alex Stearns added six tackles and had one for loss. Scott, Walls and Cupp also had stops behind the line of scrimmage, as the Pirates limited Staley’s run offense to 63 yards on 35 attempts (1.8 yards per carry).
“It doesn’t matter what happens,” Tyson said. “We all come together, and we talk it out; we go to the sidelines and talk to coaches, and they tell us what we need to fix. We get together, and we change it; we fix it, and make sure (mistakes) don’t happen again. It’s just awesome. This team is so good, and it doesn’t matter if we’re down or what big plays happen, we’ll always come back and bounce back.”
Platte County’s defense proved especially important the tumultuous first half. After the exchange of punts to open the game, the Pirates drove deep into Staley territory only for Ruhnke to have a first-and-15 pass from the 25 picked off for the game’s first turnover.
However, Platte County forced a quick three-and-out, and Tyson blocked a rugby style punt — the first blocked punt for the Pirates since last year’s regular season game with Grain Valley — to return possession at Staley’s 24.
Six plays later, Ruhnke capped the drive with a 4-yard sprint to the far-side pylon for his second rushing touchdown in as many weeks to make it 7-0 with 3:21 left in the first quarter. The play was similar to the scrambling score he had in the first half of previous week’s win over North Kansas City.
“(The blocked punt) got us on the board. It was 0-0 at the time so to get the short field, get that momentum and get the score was huge,” Utz said.
Platte County’s rush offense shined for much of the first half, but two lost fumbles limited scoring opportunities. Davis put up the majority of his rushing yards before halftime, and Ruhnke (32 yards) and junior running back Ben McDaniel (22 yards) combined for more.
Staley limited Ruhnke’s production through the air with Platte County senior wide receiver Kevin Hughes adding two catches for 20 yards and sophomore wideout Carter Salzman two for 13 yards. Pirates senior Dayton Mitchell — the team leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns on the season — was limited to one catch for 3 yards.
Surprisingly, the run game’s production came with another reshuffle of the offensive line.
Having lost senior center Grant Gomel for the season after a knee injury in Week 4, Platte County didn’t have senior right tackle Colby Guffey available for the first time this season. That shifted junior right guard Joe Nicholson out to right tackle, while junior Connor Harmon — typically a reserve defensive tackle — started at right guard. Only seniors Jesse Schillinger (center) and senior Trey Butcher (left tackle) were in normal spots, while junior Caleb Kelley continued to start at left guard since the initial reshuffle following Gomel’s injury.
Platte County also worked in freshman Muyonta Maxwell, senior Dalton Hendricks and junior Jaisyn House in at guard during the game, meaning eight different players appeared on the offensive line and five different players logged time at guard.
“We almost just put up a signup sheet in the locker room to see who wants to do it,” Utz joked. “We rotated some people in there, trying to find that fit. They played really well. Last week, they didn’t play as good, and we kind of put some (pressure) on them this week and they rose up to the challenge, got the running game going which helped open some stuff up later on.”
Platte County’s defense allowed for enough time to get the offense going through its own forced turnovers. Early in the second quarter, Filger stopped a potential Staley After a punt, Garrett Smith grabbed his first interception with the Falcons again driving into Pirates’ territory.
The second Staley turnover set up Platte County’s drive 76-yard drive that led to the second lost fumble and the game-changing series of plays that began with Cupp’s forced fumble and Boynton diving on the loose ball.
“Defense played well, as always. They’ve had a great year,” Utz said. “We’ve got kids right now that are playing really hard and getting after it. D-line is playing very well, and any time you get good d-line play, you’re going to have problems if you’re the offensive team. We’ve got some talented kids that are really playing well.”
To reach the state semifinals again, Platte County must win a Class 5 quarterfinal that will uniquely be a rematch of a 2019 Class 4 quarterfinal. The Pirates won both meetings with Grain Valley last year, but while the Eagles moved out of the Blue Division, they also moved up to Class 5.
Grain Valley won the Class 5 District 7 championship on Friday with a 42-7 blowout of Raytown, which had won the previous matchup between the two teams this season. The Eagles will be looking for a few measures of revenge after blowing a 17-point lead in last year’s regular season game with Platte County, which scored 18 unanswered in the fourth quarter to win 18-17.
In the playoff rematch, Grain Valley played without now-senior quarterback Cole Keller, a dynamic dual-threat. With now-senior wide receiver Parker Bosserman under center, the Eagles took an early lead in the Class 4 quarterfinal but lost 38-21 in Platte County’s most dominant postseason performance in 2019.
Platte County has achieved a lot of firsts in the followup season to last year’s Class 4 championship game run, and being in this spot against Grain Valley means a lot. And the players know they have a chance to keep adding to the legacy.
“It’s a great feeling, especially being in Class 5,” said Rollins, who caught three touchdowns in the playoff win over Grain Valley. “That’s a lot of firsts for this Platte County team, this 2020 Platte County football team — first Class 5 district title, first Class 5 conference title, first Class 5 win, first Class 5 a lot of things. That in itself, it’s a lot of things and a lot of hardware that people can’t take away from us. Later down the road, it’s always going to be here.”