The lopsided result of the 2019 Class 4 Show-Me Bowl forced Bill Utz to find joy in high school football’s ultimate disappointment.
Platte County’s veteran coach led the Pirates to their second playoff appearance in three years, and the memorable run ended on the turf of Faurot Field on the campus of Missouri University. However, Webb City stood on the opposite sideline on a brisk Saturday in December, and the Cardinals rolled from start to finish in a 48-0 blowout win that earned themtheir Missouri record 15th state title.
Now with two Class 4 semifinal appearances in three years, Platte County and Utz have reached the point that deep playoff runs will be expected and state titles tangible.
“In a situation that we were in going against a team like Webb City, and I say that very humbly as well because Webb City is an amazing program that does really good things. That’s their expectation to win that game,” said Utz, who led the Pirates to their first ever Class 4 title game and first championship game for the program since winning three straight Class 3/3A titles from 2000-2002. “So now you’re talking about winning one and knocking off the king at the same time, and that’s a monumental task. But to get that close and not grab it while we’re there, that’s what haunts me.
“This is a crazy profession if I don’t find joy in that. I have to find joy in that or there’s no reason to do this job.”
Platte County went 11-4 in 2019, riding a wave of momentum to a five-game winning streak in the postseason after a frustratingly up-and-down regular season with an inexperienced but talented roster. The Pirates might have had more talented teams in previous seasons — the 2017 team barely lost at Webb City in the semifinals with the Cardinals also winning the state title that season — but last year’s edition found its identity at the right time and made the most of an advantageous playoff bracket.
However, Platte County survived its trials.
- In Week 2, Park Hill South forged a big comeback to steal a win late in a frustrating 31-19 loss for the Pirates
- Two weeks later, the Pirates needed 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat Grain Valley 18-17
- Raymore-Peculiar — a Class 6 semifinalist — handed out a 47-7 blowout of the Pirates in a brief break Suburban Conference Blue Division play
- The Pirates were upset in their regular season finale at Grandview, forcing a share of the league title and casting doubt on the postseason aspirations
After each loss, Platte County rallied back, and the highlight of the regular season was a 51-14 blowout of rival Kearney that ended an eight-game skid in the series with the Bulldogs. After the loss to Grandview, the Pirates beat scrappy Winnetonka for the second time in three weeks, came back late to knock off Smithville for a second time and then toppled sentimental Class 4 District 8 top seed and previously unbeaten Lincoln Prep.
Back in the playoffs, Platte County whipped Grain Valley — a third repeat conference foe in four weeks — in the quarterfinals and survived talented but previously unknown St. Mary’s (St. Louis) in a memorable semifinal. Webb City’s efficient and relentless triple option attack and a prepared pass defense were too much to overcome for the clear underdogs.
“You look back at the teams we beat, we beat some really good teams,” Utz said. “The Grandview game kind of helped get us back, forced us to kind of regroup. You get through there and next thing you know you’re facing Webb City, and you’re like ‘How did we get here?’ You get there (to the state championship game), you want to win, but to respect that program the way that I do, losing to them is not a disgrace.
“I think we’ve reached that point where ‘well into the playoffs’ is an expectation for us, and so now we just have to get there and cross over that barrier to know we can compete for and win a state title.”
Now, Platte County returns a 2,000-yard passer in senior quarterback Chris Ruhnke, two star wide receivers in seniors Dayton Mitchell and Colby Rollins and a 1,000-yard rusher in senior running back Cayden Davis. The only question mark for the potentially high-powered offense could be the offensive line with only senior left tackle Trey Butcher back from last year’s cast of movable pieces.
On defense, Platte County must replace five starters, including a trio of all-state performers. However, the Pirates return six starters and 10 total players that factored into the lineup. The Pirates’ defense allowed just 15.2 points per game in its five postseason victories (no more than 21 in any of those games), giving confidence that the typically high-powered offense could be paired with one of the program’s better defenses in recent memory.
“The glaring thing is O-line right now,” Utz said. “Defensively, the pieces are there; we’ve just got to find the right puzzle.”
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2020 team entering the Friday, August 28 opener at Pirate Stadium against Park Hill South.
For the first time since 2016 when Justin Mitchell ended his record-setting three-year run under center, Platte County returns a starting quarterback in senior Chris Ruhnke. Like Mitchell, Tanner Clarkson (2017), Spencer Stewart (2018) and Ruhnke (2019) have also been all-state performers.
Ruhnke finished just shy of 3,000 yards with 2,925 in 15 starts and tossed 24 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. However, he still only completed 52.9 percent of his passes, showing his potential to increase efficiency this year and perhaps better the stats from last year’s debut.
“Chris had a great year, but there were so many things he could’ve done even better,” Utz said. “Those are the things that we’re seeing him improve upon. Perfection is hard to reach so he’s made mistakes, so he’s made mistakes but instead of us having to tell him what to do to correct those mistakes, we’ve given him the ability and the opportunity to fix them on his own. He’s done that.”
Having not thrown a varsity pass prior to last season, Ruhnke might have had his most complete game in the 38-21 playoff win over Grain Valley when he went 17 for 23 for 268 yards and three touchdowns — at least one of them of the dazzling highlight reel variety.
Jared Parsons, a junior, will again serve as the backup after going 3-for-4 with an interception on limited snaps last season.
In recent seasons, Platte County has spread carries and snaps between multiple running backs but should have a more clear-cut No. 1 in 2020.
Cayden Davis, a senior, suffered an ankle injury in last year’s season opener, opening the door for Trey Phan to carve out a role. Phan ended up with 715 yards and six touchdowns on the ground and 29 catches for 273 yards and three more scores receiving as a senior, providing the undersized, speedy change of pace for the offense. Lewis Hunter, another graduated senior, had 35 carries for over 100 yards and three touchdowns.
Davis missed the Week 2 loss at Park Hill South and eventually led Platte County in rushing with 1,043 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also had a start as a sophomore and enters the season again expected to take the majority of the carries as the only established running back on the roster. Importantly, Davis can also catch passes, grabbing 22 for 231 yards a year ago.
“I think I can surprise some people,” Davis said. “I’ve been working over the offseason on my speed, and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot faster so I feel like if someone sees me back there they won’t see me as a threat, and I can burn them.”
Ben McDaniel, a junior, had 136 yards rushing in 2019 in limited duty and should garner more regular varsity work this season when Davis needs spelled.
Oddly, Ruhnke’s 24 touchdown passes last season were spread between just three players last season — Phan and wide receivers Dayton Mitchell and Colby Rollins. Importantly, Mitchell and Rollins are back for their senior seasons, giving the Pirates a pair of dynamic targets in their spread offense.
Mitchell will be a third-year starter after putting up team-highs of 66 catches and 994 yards to go with 10 touchdowns — three in a regular season blowout of Raytown South and both of the Platte County’s touchdowns in the 15-14 state semifinal win at St. Mary’s. He was a limited contributor as a sophomore but drew the majority of defensive attention as the top returning receiver in 2019.
Rollins ended up having the bigger surprise breakout season after not playing any varsity prior to 2019. He led the Pirates with 11 touchdown catches — four in the first three games — and ended up with 34 catches for 726 yards (21.4 yard average) as the big-play deep threat. As defenses were forced to account for Rollins, Mitchell’s targets and big plays increased as the season went on.
Utz expects sophomore Carter Salzman to be an immediate contributor after shifting from running back, and junior Cole Rhoden and senior Kevin Hughes will also compete for time to replace the graduated trio of Hunter Clarkson (25 catches, 368 yards), Donnie Maccuish (26 catches, 252 yards) and Cam Scheib (nine catches, 81 yards).
“It’s more of like a receiving corps in ’17 than the last two years,” Utz said of this group’s potential and depth. “The last two years we’ve kind of had a Batman and Robin duo whereas in ’17 we had (Devin) Richardson, (Dylan) Gilbert and (Jon) Watts, and it was like, ‘What are you gonna do?’”
Sounds seemingly impossible, but Platte County must replace the equivalent of six starters and still returns one starter from last year’s shifting unit.
Trey Butcher is a senior left tackle who started all 15 games last year and received regular playing time late in the 2018 season. He has played guard and tackle spots, and Utz said he might also be the backup center this year if needed.
However, there’s not another player on the roster with starting experience.
“That’s kind of weird,” Utz said. “Trey coming into it, he’s your No. 1 in a sense of experience, and he’s solid. The O-line is by far the biggest question with possible answers there. It could mold into a solid unit; we just have to make sure we stay confident.”
Utz has junior Joe Nicholson and senior Jesse Schillinger pegged as Platte County’s likely starting guards, and senior Colby Guffey as the right tackle. Guffey is back with the team after a year away. Grant Gomel, a senior, tops the depth chart at center after waiting his turn behind more experience players at that position the past two years.
“Last year and the years prior, I was just taking notes from everybody,” Butcher said. “This year, I’ve just gotta kind of be the leader and tell people how it is, and if they don’t know, I’m the guy to come and ask questions.”
Depth could be an issue with Platte County replacing three-year starter Max Renner (guard and tackle), two-year standout Wyett Wallingford (guard and tackle) and Luke Seigel, the starting center in both the 2018 and 2019 season openers. In addition, senior Kevin Fagan took over a starting guard spot last season after beginning the year on the defensive line, while seniors Gunner Tongate and Jonathan Owen were rotated in at guard and began the year in a platoon at one of the guard spots.
Platte County averaged 24.1 points per game despite a pair of blowout losses (Raymore-Peculiar and Webb City) where they scored a combined seven points, and the offense came up just short of 5,000 yards (2,016 rushing, 2,980 passing).
Platte County’s defensive line rotation might have to sort itself out, much like a year ago. The Pirates will benefit from the depth shown a year ago during the process.
Gone from last year’s strong pass-rushing unit is three-year starter Garret Watson (79 tackles, team-high 18 for loss), an all-state force as a senior with 16 sacks — second most in a single season in program history. He moved from defensive tackle to end for his final season and eventually paired with senior James Gladden (51 tackles, 6 for loss), who ended up on the opposite end with nine sacks after being forced into a defensive tackle role for a time due to unfortunate circumstances.
Alex Stearns, now a senior, injured his elbow on the opening kickoff of the season and didn’t return until Week 8, taking away a projected starter at tackle.
Instead, Kevin Fagan had eight tackles as a defensive tackle before moving to offense, and Gladden filled the spot at times. However, Stearns returned and totaled 36 tackles and a sack as a disruptive force and now returns alongside senior Keaton Smith, a third-year starter who recorded 40 tackles as a junior and will be the anchor of the interior line.
“Keaton Smith is doing a tremendous job inside. He’s very athletic for his size,” Utz said. “Stearns is just a headache.”
Platte County will shift between three- and four-man fronts with senior defensive Forrest Boynton (30 tackles, 3 for loss, and 6 ½ sacks) a consistent pass rushing threat. Stearns and juniors Jaydon Walls, who missed nearly the entire season with a broken collarbone, and Chandler Steinmeir could push for their first significant playing time. Steinmeir, an intriguing athlete who played mostly special teams as a sophomore, and sophomore Chandavion Bradley could be breakout candidates.
In addition, junior Connor Harmon will have an opportunity to play more at defensive tackle after providing some depth as a first-year contributor in his sophomore season.
Much like the defensive line, the linebacking corps must replace an all-state performer (Gabe Harmon, team-high 96 tackles in his second-year and a starter) and could assume different looks depending on how many are on the field.
Trevor Scott, a junior, has started much of the past two seasons and had 81 tackles (11 for a loss), six sacks and an interception in a breakout sophomore season. He will undoubtedly lead the linebackers but might also need to assume some of the leadership and on-field coaching responsibilities Harmon leaves behind.
“The leadership that Gabe brought is irreplaceable, very much like the athletic ability that Watson brought,” Utz said. “You just don’t replace a Gabe Harmon overnight in leadership. Gabe did everything right.
“Trevor’s a very explosive kid. He’s got to get to a point where instead of just being the athlete he’s doing everything right on top of that and then tremendous things are going to happen for him.”
In addition to Scott, junior Blaine Keuhn moves down from a safety spot after recording 10 tackles, two sacks and an interception as a reserve in 2019. Cameron Wolfe, a sophomore, had 10 tackles as an occasional contributor in his freshman campaign.
Jaydon Walls and senior Tryce Brooks are also options.
On paper, Platte County had both starting cornerbacks returning in senior Collin Tyson and junior Cade Fowler and needed to replace two two-year starting safeties in all-stater Trent Rueckert (57 tackles, team-high six interceptions) and Will Hay (64 tackles, three interceptions).
Instead, Platte County will move Tyson (45 tackles, one interception) and Fowler (21 tackles before a season-ending injury suffered in the Week 6 loss to Raymore-Peculiar) to safety. The Pirates run a lot of three-safety sets, and seniors Luke Filger (25 tackles in seven games) and Tae Bailey — another cornerback turned safety — will provide depth to the position group and leave cornerback as the biggest question mark.
Third-year starter Spencer Cupp (78 tackles) perhaps embodies the versatility the most. He who was more of a linebacker as a sophomore and a safety last year and could play some at either of those spots but more likely will be a starting cornerback to start.
“As a safety, it’s weird because you kind of know what the linebackers have to do and what the corners have to do,” Cupp said. “And as a safety last year, I kind of knew what the corners had to do, but it’s so different knowing it and seeing it — just reading coverages differently, being at a different angle on the field, knowing when to fit the run, know what coverage, what depths, different receivers you have to cover at different times.”
In addition to Cupp, sophomore Garrett Smith and junior Landon Fulk will also compete for time at cornerback, and the Pirates expect Dayton Mitchell to see more time on defense, as well. Mitchell played a lot of cornerback in the playoffs due to injuries piling up and even had the crucial last play pass breakup that sealed the semifinal win over St. Mary’s.
“You could move one piece, and the options are all over the place,” Utz said of the defense’s interchangeable parts.
Rueckert, Tyson and Scott all had interception returns for touchdowns last season, and Platte County picked off 14 passes as a team and yet amazingly were -3 in turnover differential in 2019.
Platte County found a gem in senior Grant Allen for one year of kicking and punting and helped him become the second player in Missouri history to play in both the soccer and football state title games in the same season. The soccer-first, two-sport standout went 13-for-23 on field goals and 23-for-27 on extra points (62 points scored). He had four field goals between 40 and 49 yards and had three field goals in both wins over Smithville and three more in the District 8 title game win over Lincoln Prep.
However, due to injuries and soccer game commitments, Platte County also saw the occasional glimpse of this year’s special teams.
Cole Rhoden went 8-for-8 on extra points in appearances against Raytown South and Grain Valley. He also made a field goal in the playoff win over Grain Valley and could be the permanent replacement.
When Allen and his 34.1-yard punt average weren’t available, Blaine Keuhn and Chris Ruhnke picked up the slack. Ruhnke kicked nine times and had three downed inside the 20 a year ago and looks to be the favorite to start there in addition to his duties under center