Colby Rollins knew he was open, but in a fleeting instant, the senior wide receiver tried to figure out just how open.
Winnetonka junior cornerback/wide receiver Jason Essex leaped for a high-arcing pass from Platte County senior quarterback Chris Ruhnke and created a bit of doubt. Rollins remained calm and hauled in the throw well behind the defense and raced the remaining 40-plus yards for a game-changing 78-yard touchdown Friday night at North Kansas City High School.
Rollins created separation both on the play and in the pivotal matchup between ranked teams to key Platte County’s 34-20 win that puts the Pirates just one win from the first outright Suburban Conference Blue Division title in program history.
“I saw (Essex), saw how close he got,” said Rollins, who finished with just two catches but totaled a team-high 140 receiving yards and factored into perhaps the two biggest touchdowns in the game against previously unbeaten Winnetonka. “I had a split second to decide if I was going to come down and just try to swat it or if I was going to have to catch it and just take the prayer. I saw I had him beat just enough; Chris got it over just enough. He wasn’t going to be able to reach it.
“Beautiful ball by Chris — couldn’t have asked for much better.”
After a back-and-forth first half, Platte County (6-1, 5-0 Blue Division) scored 17 unanswered points after halftime — 24 in a row going back to the second quarter — to squelch a potential landmark upset bid.
Winnetonka (6-1, 4-1) had yet to play a team with a winning record this season but remained within one possession until Rollins’ touchdown put the Pirates ahead 27-13 with 2 minutes, 1 second left in the third quarter. On the Griffins’ next drive, coach Benny Palmer continued his pattern of aggressive play calling and gambled on fourth and 3 in his own territory.
Platte County came up with the stop, and three plays later, junior running back Ben McDaniel burst through the middle for a 30-yard touchdown run that accounted for most of his 43 yards on the ground to increase the lead to 34-13 with just more than 10 minutes left in regulation.
“I knew that Ben was going to be free as soon as I looked upfield,” Platte County senior left tackle Trey Butcher said. “I threw the touchdown symbols immediately.”
Platte County ran for 147 yards total, and senior running back Cayden Davis again led the way with 89 yards on 21 attempts and two short touchdown runs in the first half. The Pirates turned in a second straight strong game on the ground after the previous week’s season-best rushing total against overmatched Ruskin behind a continually retooled offensive line.
“A little bit of continuity up front helps and then just an effort and actual focus on practice more — to get better and to know that we feel that’s something we needed to work on,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “And Cayden’s been running his tail off, and then when Ben comes in, he’s a nice little mix on it, too.”
For the second straight game, Platte County senior Jesse Schillinger started at center, while junior guard Joe Nicholson and senior Colby Guffey (tackle) remained anchored on the right side of the offensive line after the first series. Butcher — the only returner with any experience — moved to center in the immediate aftermath of senior Grant Gomel’s season-ending injury but has kicked back out to left tackle and swapped spots with Schillinger. The Pirates rotated junior Caleb Kelley and senior Dalton Hendricks, who received his first career start, at left guard.
“I think we’ve finally found a set-in-stone spot for everybody, and I think it’s really helping the run game, which increases confidence,” Butcher said. “It feels good to be back home at left tackle. Don’t get me wrong: it was fun to play every other position, but I think we’re all really glad that (Schillinger) found a position that really suits him.”
Platte County won both matchups between the two teams last year — the second in the first round of Class 4 District 8 play. The Pirates were well-acquainted with the dangerous returning offensive weapons that put Winnetonka in a tie for seventh in the Missouri media’s Class 4 poll — the only dropped to No. 8 with the loss — coming into this year’s game.
Winnetonka took a 7-3 lead in the first quarter after senior quarterback Javon Satterwhite — a third-year starter — hit Essex for a 40-yard completion on a jump ball to set up senior running back Montre Moore’s 9-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. Late in the second quarter, Satterwhite found senior speedster wide receiver Julian Hodges behind the defense for a 69-yard touchdown on a one-play scoring drive to make it 13-10 after a failed extra point.
Satterwhite, who finished 14 of 30 passing, threw for 145 of his 218 yards in the first half, while Essex (four catches for 67 yards) and Hodges (four for 110) dominated the targets. Moore needed 23 carries to reach 83 yards.
“Most of them were the same … it was a familiar game,” said Platte County senior defensive end Forrest Boynton, who has two tackles and a pass breakup in his first game back from a two-week absence. “It was more of a ‘Who is going to win?’ — not ‘Who is going to dominate?’ There were going to be points on the board. We weren’t looking for a shutout; we were looking for a putaway (in the final two quarters).
Platte County’s defense held a sixth opponent to 20 or fewer points with junior linebackers Trevor Scott 10 tackles (three for loss) and Blaine Keuhn (eight tackles) especially active. Pirates junior defensive back Cade Fowler and senior defensive back Luke Filger added six tackles in a balanced effort that mostly accounted for all the stars.
“(Winnetonka) had the one big play in the first half that was pretty much the coverage was beat,” Utz said. “But other than that, I thought we were in pretty good spots, and you’re talking about some really good athletes and another good quarterback.
“There’s a lot of really good players on (our defense), but there’s no one superstar. I’m never surprised on who makes a play because they all can do it.”
Winnetonka managed very little offense after halftime.
Following the Rollins touchdown, Platte County forced another turnover on downs with junior defensive end Jaydon Walls (five tackles) and sophomore defensive end Chandavian Bradley (three tackles) combining on the second of two sacks of Satterwhite. The game appeared all but over at that point, but Winnetonka intercepted Ruhnke, who finished an uncharacteristically uneven 8-for-24 passing for 272 yards, inside the 10 on the very next play.
Winnetonka then drove 94 yards for a final touchdown, aided by three defensive pass interference penalties, to make it 34-20 with 5:07 left, but Platte County ran out the remainder by running for a pair of first downs and getting another one by penalty.
“Our defense is solid; our defense has done good stuff all year,” Utz said. “Being aggressive that way on fourth downs is actually a compliment to our offense in the sense that they knew what type of game they had to play.”
Each of Winnetonka’s touchdowns in the first half was answered with a big-play counter.
On the first play after Moore’s touchdown run, Ruhnke hit senior wide receiver Dayton Mitchell for a 57-yard catch-and-run, and four plays later, Platte County scored to take the lead back for Platte County, which entered ranked No. 6 in the Class 5 Missouri media poll and remained there after the win. On third-and-9 in the red zone, Ruhnke completed a short screen pass to Davis, who spun away from an initial tackle and gained an important first down.
Davis scored on first-and-goal from the 3 on the next play to make it 10-7.
Hodges scored his touchdown with 3:05 left in the first half, and Platte County immediately encountered a third-and-15 and the possibility of returning the ball to the Griffins with the lead and momentum.
Instead, Ruhnke uncorked a pass to Rollins in double coverage, and he ripped the ball away from two Winnetonka defenders for a 62-yard gain. Davis scored from 2 yards out three snaps later to make it 17-13 with 45 seconds left in the first half.
“Mentality on that was just it was third down. The play was set up for me. I had to go out and execute. I had to get us down there,” said Rollins, who missed most of a Week 3 game against rival Kearney and didn’t catch his first touchdown until Week 4 vs. North Kansas City after leading the Pirates with 11 receiving scores in 2019 during a run to the Class 4 Show-Me Bowl. “Ball went up — again another beautiful ball by Chris — and all I had to do was jump up there. It’s a jumping competition from there, and I’ve got them beat there.”
Platte County almost added to its lead before halftime in an unlikely scenario.
Winnetonka picked up two personal foul penalties on what ended up two attempts for a successful extra point, moving the ensuing kickoff to the Griffins’ 30-yard line. Platte County then picked up an offside penalty and the first of two onside kick attempts only for Winnetonka to eventually recover.
However, Winnetonka struggled to run out the clock, and Satterwhite eventually threw an interception. Pirates sophomore Cameron Wolfe grabbed his second pick in a span of three weeks with 9.9 seconds left before halftime.
Mitchell then hauled in a diving 23-yard catch to put the ball at Winnetonka’s 12, but junior Cole Rhoden’s 29-yard field goal attempt to close the half was blocked.
“(Rollins’ 62-yard catch) was a big play,” Utz said. “Chris made a great throw; Colby made a great catch — again, a very poised play. That was big for us to get those points. Defense stepped up, and we probably should’ve added on to it, and it probably would’ve been an earlier dagger.”
Platte County forced two turnovers in the first half but both resulted in field goal attempts. The first came on Winnetonka’s second drive when senior safety Collin Tyson (six tackles) blitzed, sacked and stripped Satterwhite of the ball, and Pirates senior defensive tackle Alex Stearns (four tackles, two for loss) fell on the loose ball.
The ensuing drive started at Winnetonka’s 13, but Platte County went backward on three plays and eventually settled for a 32-yard Rhoden field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
“To come out with the lead and not play our best, I felt OK at halftime,” Utz said. “Could’ve done a lot better (with the turnovers).”
After the teams exchanged punts to start the second half, Rhoden added another 32-yard field goal set up by an 11-yard run from Davis and a 12-yard completion to Mitchell, who had a team-high four catches for 114 yards. Platte County led 20-13, but the lead seemed tenuous until until Rollins sneaked behind defense for the big play, ultimately propelling them to the big win.
Platte County remained unbeaten in conference play and needs only to beat Raytown South to claim the outright title. The Pirates previously shared the Blue Division championship in 2012, 2018 and 2019 in both encouraging and frustrating outcomes.
In particular, Platte County was in position last year to go undefeated in conference play before suffering an upset in regular season finale at Grandview to force a share with Smithville. The Pirates are scheduled to play at 11 a.m. Saturday against winless Raytown South (0-5, 0-3), which has been idle for two weeks due to a COVID quarantine reported to be ending this week.
Assuming Saturday’s game is played, a Platte County win avoids any scenario of a potential share with either Winnetonka or Smithville.
“That’ll be in the back of the book. I promise,” said Butcher of the chance to become the first team to win the Blue Division title outright.
Platte County beat both Smithville and Winnetonka in the three-game stretch following a potentially disastrous 42-37 nonconference loss to North Kansas City in Week 4 when the Pirates lost a 31-7 halftime lead in a dizzying combination of non-offensive touchdowns. They then found out a new postseason assignment added importance to the result.
For three weeks since the loss, Platte County has sat atop of the Class 5 District 8 standings after moving up from Class 4 for the first time in program history. North Kansas City had been at No. 2 with the Hornets in position to jump to the No. 1 seed based on the head-to-head result between the two teams.
However, Park Hill South (5-2) came back to beat North Kansas City (4-3) on Friday to shake up the projected bracket again.
Now, Park Hill South sits at No. 2, and Platte County beat the Panthers in Week 1, putting the Pirates back in position to stay at No. 1 and earn the first round bye if the seeds hold through the final two weeks.