Platte County seniors lead program into uncharted territory

With wins over Pembroke Hill, Grain Valley, Pirates advance to state for 1st time as historic season marches on to Cape Girardeau this week.
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Platte County Katlyn Donovan found confidence in her team’s eagerness to start the Class 4 quarterfinal against Grain Valley on Saturday evening. Just moments after the Pirates knocked off undefeated Pembroke Hill, the Pirates didn’t want to waste any time potentially letting momentum slip away at Winnetonka High School.

Platte County coaches celebrate a Class 4 quarterfinal win over Grain Valley on Saturday at Winnetonka High School.

“Coming in, I told them we would need to play two back-to-back,” Donovan said. “Once the Pembroke game was over, I was like, ‘How much time do you want? Thirty minutes or an hour?’ They said, ‘Let’s go now; let’s roll.; I knew once they told me we were ready for the Grain Valley game, and we were going to come out on top.”

Platte County entered with only two playoff wins in program history but doubled that on the way to earning a historic first state semifinal berth. The Pirates closed out Grain Valley in convincing fashion with a 25-20, 25-15, 25-20 sweep.

With just one loss since early September, Platte County (27-6-2) advances to play Parkway West (11-4) at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday in one of two Class 4 semifinals at the Show-Me Center in Cape Girardeau. The other matchup pits Willard (29-3-1) vs. Nerinx Hall (11-3).

In past years, the four teams would play a round robin with the two teams finishing with the best record playing for the championship and the other two going to the third-place game.

Due to COVID-19 precautions, this year’s state tournament will be straight bracket play. Regardless of outcome, Platte County made history this season advancing back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 despite posting back-to-back 28-win seasons in 2018 and 2019 while being ousted in Class 4 districts. This season, the state expanded to five classes, and the Pirates remained in Class 4, creating a new postseason path.

Platte County junior Kate Brown digs the ball against Grain Valley in a Class 4 quarterfinal Saturday at Winnetonka High School.

“It is so emotional to know we are the first (final four team) and the first for coach Donovan,” said Platte County senior libero Presli Firkins, who had 12 digs in the win over Grain Valley. “We want to play for her and play for each other.”

Platte County entered the quarterfinal with confidence.

Grain Valley defeated St. Pius X in four sets in the first sectional game of the day Saturday, but Platte County had an 8-game winning streak against the Eagles that dated back to 2016. That included Pirates wins this year in the Lee’s Summit North Tournament and later the Winnetonka Tournament during a 22-match unbeaten streak.

Trailing 8-7 in the opening set, Platte County received a kill from junior Kate Brown — one of a team-high 13 for her against Grain Valley — to tie the match, and the Pirates didn’t trail again. Grain Valley (21-10-3) tied the match at 14 and 15, but neither team had more than one two points in a row in the closing stretch, and the Pirates sealed the set on Grain Valley’s inability to return volleys.

Platte County never trailed in the second set, although it was tied at 7-7. With junior Emerson Walter serving, the Pirates pulled away with a 5-0 run, which included kills by Brown and senior Aly Anderson. Brown had two more kills with Firkins serving, and the lead grew from 15-10 to 19-11.

Platte County junior Emerson Walter looks to hit a set for junior Kate Brown during a Class 4 quarterfinal against Grain Valley on Saturday at Winnetonka High School.

In the third set, Platte County raced out to a 9-3 lead, and Grain Valley never mounted much of a challenge, even with a 5-0 run closing the deficit to 16-13. Pirates senior Bryn McGehe recorded a kill to end the run and start a string of three straight points. Brown’s kill made it 24-19 before Grain Valley hit the ball out of bounds on the first match point and the ball fell to the ground to set off a celebration.

Donovan jumped in the air before fellow coaches swarmed her for a hug, while the players danced together as history was made.

“We played them twice already and it was good; we beat them both times, but it is hard to beat a team three times in a year,” said Brown, who added 12 digs. “We were ready to get it done, get home and get ready for state next week.”

Walter led Platte County with 22 assists, while McGehe added 12 assists and 12 kills in her dual role as outside hitter and setter. Anderson recorded a team-high 19 digs to go with seven kills, while senior Haley Luna led the team with two blocks. Mary Grace Hunter had two of the Pirates’ four aces.

Just another typically balanced performance for Platte County with five accomplished seniors — Anderson, McGehe, Firkins, Luna and Cameron Brown — leading the program to a new height with more history potentially awaiting.

Platte County senior Haley Luna goes up for a spike against Grain Valley in a Class 4 quarterfinal Saturday at Winnetonka High School.

“Holy cow, it is amazing; it feels absolutely amazing,” Donovan said. “These girls deserve everything they get. They worked tremendously hard in the offseason and during the season to get to this point. We knew we had a good shot with them moving to five classes and with us being in Class 4. That was our ultimate goal to get to this position and punch that ticket to the final four.”

Parkway West has played just 15 matches due to COVID-19 restrictions in St. Louis that delayed the start of the season until the end of September. The Longhorns have reeled off a four-match winning streak in the postseason and will have their third top-four state finish (second in 2001 and fourth in 2006).

Willard may be the favorite with the most wins this season and seven straight playoff berths. In 2018, the Tigers took fourth place. Nerinx Hall is 11-3 and prior to this year had back-to-back losing seasons and is in the postseason for the first time in nearly 20 years (2002).

Platte County 3, Pembroke Hill 1

The Pirates knocked off previously unbeaten Pembroke Hill 25-21, 25-18, 21-25, 25-19 in the sectional round earlier in the day to advance to quarterfinals for the third time in program history and first since 2014. The Raiders reached the playoffs five times in the previous six seasons while in Class 3 before moving up.

Platte County senior Aly Anderson keeps a rally alive Saturday in a Class 4 quarterfinal against Grain Valley at Winnetonka High School.

“We didn’t know much about them and everything we knew we knew just from the film,” said Firkins, who had 16 digs against Pembroke Hill. “We just came out and decided to fight as hard as we can.”

Added Brown, “I was more nervous for the Pembroke Hill game. We hadn’t played them before so I didn’t really know them. I love seeing new teams and getting a new challenge but the pressure needing to win that game was a little stressful but it was good. I’m glad we got to play them.”

The first set featured five ties with the last at 19-19. A kill from Brown started Platte County’s late 4-0 run, which included a spike from Hunter that went off a Pembroke Hill defender and out of bounds to make it 23-19. The Raiders took a timeout and immediately closed within two, but Brown’s kill accounted for the 25th point and ended hope of a comeback.

Platte County built a 16-9 lead in the second set, although Pembroke Hill rallied within 19-16. Four points in a row for the Pirates gave them a bigger cushion and eventually the two-set lead. The Raiders took advantage of return errors from the Pirates to take an early 10-5 lead in the third set.

Pembroke Hill led by as much as seven, and Platte County did rally within 21-19 on a long service run from Walter. A kill from Pembroke Hill’s Sarah Lattan, a 6-foot-2 middle hitter, started a 4-0 run that helped the Raiders put the set away.

“I think we needed that little setback so we knew how hard we had to work to actually win,” Firkin said. “And it was the best volleyball we ever played.”

In the final set, Platte County actually faced a 12-9 deficit and surged ahead with Walter, who recorded three of the Pirates’ 11 aces in the match serving again, and the Pirates went up 13-12 on a block by McGehe. The set was tied at 14, 17 and then 18, but a kill from Brown gave the Pirates the lead for good.

A bump over the net from sophomore Karsyn Stehlik fell to the floor to make it 23-19 and Anderson’s final kill made it 24-19, setting up match point.

Platte County had players fill up the stat sheet in this showdown. McGehe, a Kansas pledge, had 19 kills, three blocks, 11 digs and 23 assists. Brown had 14 kills, 14 digs and a team-high five aces, while Anderson finished with 13 kills and 18 digs.

Walter led the Pirates with 26 assists, while adding 12 digs.

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