Platte County’s players and coaches have proven they belong, regardless of the level. The Pirates reached the Show-Me Bowl each of the past two years, first in Class 4 and then in Class 5 in actually unprecedented back-to-back state runnerup finishes for a program forced to grow up as competition increased.
Coming off the second-best four-year run ever, Platte County must now try to find a way to keep the momentum going and avoid a letdown season.
“I think you always have that drive,” said Platte County coach Bill Utz, who guided the Pirates to a seventh playoff trip in his 13th season at the helm with three state semifinal showings in the past four years and improved his career record to 108-49 with the Pirates and 134-104 overall including stints at Stewartsville and Mid-Buchanan. “We’ve had the two years where we’ve had some nice runs, and really several years where we’ve made nice runs. As much as these kids take pride in what we accomplished last year, they don’t want to be the team that gets worse. They want to be the team that finishes one step higher, and the fact we didn’t finish the state title run with a championship, it leaves us with one more notch that we are still in search of.”
Platte County went 12-2 in 2020, the first 12-win season for the Pirates since winning three straight Class 3/3A state titles from 2000-2002. Until 2019, those were the only three state championship game appearances for the program, and those seasons completed a four-year run with a 65-1 record.
After taking an unexpected step up from Class 4 to Class 5 in 2020, Platte County showed its mettle, winning its first outright Suburban Conference Blue Division title since 2012 after sharing the crown in 2018 and 2019. The Pirates earned the No. 1 seed in Class 5 District 8, won the program’s first district title at that level and reached the state semifinals for the third time in four years before losing 42-7 to undefeated juggernaut Jackson (14-0) in the title game.
There were 22 seniors on the roster that helped lead Platte County to a 44-11 record in their four years. Now, the Pirates want to the recent legacy with a new, untested quarterback short on proven weapons but behind an experienced offensive line while leaning on a defense returning stars in key places.
Platte County allowed more than 20 points just three times a year ago, the first in a turnover-fueled 42-37 loss to North Kansas City in Week 4, then 28 in a tight state quarterfinal win over Grain Valley and the lopsided title game. For the first time in recent memory, the Pirates’ challenged their perceived identity as a high-scoring shootout team unable to rely on consistent stops.
“We return more answered questions on defense,” Utz said. “We return some kids on defense that have had great careers for us already so having them on that side those are things we don’t necessarily have to worry about or find.”
Platte County earned 15 total selections to the Missouri Football Coaches Association and Missouri Media all-state teams — 7 unanimous and two repeat picks — but only one returns this season.
The roster must grow up quick. The Pirates open against Park Hill South (8-3 in 2020), having won back-to-back tight games against the Panthers in their regular season series. They also draw Kearney (Week 2) and Smithville (Week 5) early in the year while carrying winning streaks against both rivals.
Platte County could be the favorite to win the Blue Division again, but Smithville, Kearney and a rejuvenated Winnetonka (Week 7) plus always dangerous Grandview (Week 3) have the league as deep as ever. The Pirates also have a road test with North Kansas City in Week 4 after splitting two meetings last year with the Class 5 Hornets, and Lansing visits Platte City in a cross-state regular season finale after a tight matchup between the two in 2020.
Still yet to find out if this year’s district assignment will be Class 4 or Class 5, Platte County will be well prepared for the postseason thanks to a mostly loaded first nine weeks.
“There’s no one on our schedule that is not better than they were a year ago,” Utz said. “There’s no question that we are the target for a lot of teams. It’s because of what we’ve accomplished that we’ve kind of put a target on ourselves and we’re going to get their best each and every week.”
For the third time in five seasons, Platte County must turn to a quarterback with almost no prior varsity experience. The last two have done extremely well.
Can senior Jared Parsons be next?
Platte County has put a quarterback that either was all-state or would become all-state under center each of the past seven seasons — Justin Mitchell (2014-2016), Tanner Clarkson (2017), Spencer Stewart (2018) and Chris Ruhnke (2019-2020). Clarkson and Ruhnke took over the job with very few varsity snaps and produced three all-state seasons between them.
Ruhnke spent the last two seasons at quarterback before signing with Northwest Missouri State. He passed for 3,032 yards as a senior and totaled 5,979 in his career (a school record) to go with 52 passing touchdowns (second only to Mitchell’s record of 59) while leading the Pirates to back-to-back state championship game appearances and state runnerup finishes.
With a competitive schedule the past two seasons, Parsons enters this season 3-for-6 passing for 34 yards with three carries for five yards. He went 0-for-2 as a junior and 3-for-4 as a sophomore with the one incompletion an interception.
At 5-foot-10, Parsons does not have the same stature as Ruhnke but does display the deceptive athleticism that made his predecessor an effective scrambler.
“That’s a position that’s a tough position to play and to be thrust into that position against an extremely tough schedule, that’s a challenge,” Utz said. “And someone like Jared knows that, and it’s something we discussed. We’ve talked about it, and he knows what we’re going into. It’s kind of part of it: next guy in has the same expectations we always have.”
To make the transition even more challenging, Platte County graduated a two-time 1,000-yard rusher at running back and four of the top five pass catchers from 2020. Parsons will have access to more two-running back sets plus single- and multiple-tight end looks in the Pirates’ spread offense that often adjusts for the available personnel.
“I just remind him: I need his best version,” Utz said. “I don’t need him to be anybody else other than the best he can possibly be, and we will adapt around him. Any high school team, you better adapt to the athletes that you have and find those strengths.”
Platte County also has 6-foot-2 junior Dylan Zimmerman on the depth chart, but he has zero varsity snaps. Garin Walton, a sophomore, is currently the No. 3.
Platte County senior Ben McDaniel finally has his chance to take the lead role after serving as a capable backup to Cayden Davis in 2019 and 2020. In addition, the Pirates added junior Nate Walls, a transfer from Park Hill with starting experience who can provide a dual-threat option for the Pirates.
“Ben’s definitely more of a runner than a receiver, by all means,” Utz said. “Nate’s more of a true hybrid, so he can do a little of both. He’s athletic enough to run good routes and has a good burst at running back that can definitely be a major play for us. But I feel confident in Ben. Ben’s much-improved.”
Davis ran for 1,043 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior and 1,009 and 18 touchdowns as a senior, earning first team All-Suburban Conference Blue Division honors a year ago.
Davis also caught 41 passes, mostly in the screen game.
McDaniel ran 80 times for 295 yards as a junior and five touchdowns and added another score on one of his three receptions. He ran 29 times for 136 yards as a junior when he served as the No. 3 running back.
While McDaniel will be more of the traditional inside the tackle runner, Walls provides the speed threat on the edge and should line up at both running back and wide receiver. He carried 42 times for 230 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore at Park Hill in a pass-heavy offense but did not record a catch.
Behind the top two will be senior speedster and first-year player Victor Sewankambo and sophomore Grant Archibald.
As mentioned, Platte County loses four of the top five pass catchers from a year ago in all-stater Dayton Mitchell, deep threat Colby Rollins, red zone target Joey Schultz and reliable slot man Kevin Hughes. The quartet combined for 139 catches, 2,216 yards and 22 touchdowns.
However, Platte County does bring back junior Carter Salzman after he put up 33 catches for 451 yards and three touchdowns plus another score on the ground as the clear No. 3 option. He’s a 5-foot-9, 160-pound speedster who grew into his role making two pivotal touchdown grabs in the Class 5 state semifinal win over Webb City.
“(Carter)’s grown up,” Utz said. “The only question Carter doesn’t have answered yet is what he’s like when he’s going to draw a lot more attention. It was a perfect year for him coming in as a sophomore with the receivers we had with him because you had to give him attention but you couldn’t give him all your attention. Now, he’s going to draw the best kid, so his only question is how he reacts to being that guy.”
In addition, Platte County senior Cole Rhoden made 12 catches for 164 yards and will have a more prominent role as an outside receiver, while Walls will essentially be the No. 3 receiver and and No. 2 running back depending on the formation.
The depth will be tested this season with junior Tristan Magnuson and sophomore Dawsen Mizell the likely next options who will see snaps to keep Rhoden fresh for his punting and kicking duties.
“Cole’s doing a great job,” Utz said. “He’s making some great catches for us and being a leader. We are definitely in a spot where we need to find some other people there.”
Platte County’s wide receivers were one of the deepest groups in recent years.
Mitchell finished his three-year career with 132 receptions, the second-most catches in program history behind Dylan Gilbert, 1,946 yards and 21 touchdowns as one of the best in program history. He started the past two years and was a key part of the receiver corps as a sophomore, and Utz hopes Salzman sees a similar bump in production. Rollins also started the past two years and finished with 82 catches for 1,667 yards and 18 touchdowns, including a team-high 11 as a junior.
Schultz made his debut last year and caught seven touchdowns as a consistent threat with his 6-foot-6 frame, allowing Ruhnke to target him on jump balls in key situations.
With wide receiver depth a question mark, coaches have moved seniors Brody Fulk and Chandler Steinmeir to tight end in an effort to better utilize the talent available.
Fulk spent his junior year as a backup linebacker and finished with 11 tackles and a sack. Steinmeir moved from offensive line as a sophomore to defensive line as a junior but had trouble cracking the depth chart outside of special teams. He put up three tackles and a sack as a junior before being moved to his third position in three years for his senior season.
Platte County could run formations with both one and two tight ends.
“It’s been a slow transition for (Chandler) because we’re moving him around all the time. We’re trying to find that magic spot for him,” Utz said. “Brody’s such an intellect. When he knows where he’s going, he’s good. We told him at the end of the season we were looking for a tight end, and it was gonna be him. And he bought into it right away, and he’s done everything he needed to do to get to this point.”
One of the thinnest position groups a year ago suddenly features a lot of experience and promise.
In 2020, Platte County used seven different starting configurations due in part to a Week 4 season-ending injury to senior center Grant Gomel. The Pirates have seven players in the mix for playing time this year, and three have starting experience and five received varsity snaps a season ago during the constant flux.
Platte County senior Joe Nicholson (6-foot-3, 270 pounds) will be the left tackle, having spent time at both tackle spots and guard as a junior in his first year as a starter. Caleb Kelley (5-11, 220), another senior, will be at left guard after having a mostly consistent hold on that spot in wake of Gomel’s injury last season.
Connor Harmon (6-1, 250), a third senior, started the final four games at guard last year after spending the majority of two seasons as a backup defensive tackle. He will shift to center this year with all three players who featured at that spot in 2020 graduated.
Platte County sophomore Muyonta Maxwell (6-3, 250) slides into the right tackle spot after receiving playing time at guard as a freshman. The right guard spot remains up in the air with senior Jaisyn House (6-1, 255), junior Sage Lutz (6-4, 235) and junior Braden Parker (6-1, 250) all with potential to see time. House has the most experience of the trio looking to lock up a starting spot.
“Joe’s gotta have a good year; Connor’s gotta have a good year,” Utz said. “And I think Muyonta is going to be really good.”
Platte County will miss the leadership of Trey Butcher, signed to Northwest Missouri State, after he spent three years as a starter and played left tackle, guard and center in his senior season, moving as needed during the postseason run. In addition, right tackle Colby Guffey, tackle/center Jesse Schillinger and Gomel were lost off of last year’s unit. Only Butcher and Guffey started the state semifinal and championship game with Kelley and Harmon at the guard spots and Nicholson at left tackle in those games.
Platte County’s defensive line lost three key starters on the defensive line but won’t be struggling by any means. The depth might be the only real question mark.
The defensive end spots for Platte County look set with senior standout Jaydon Walls and junior rising national recruit Chandavian Bradley forming a formidable duo. However, the Pirates must replace all-state defensive tackles Alex Stearns and Keaton Smith, who became the clear unsung hero in 2020 from his nose guard spot.
“Keaton and Stearns were unsung guys,” Utz said. “You didn’t necessarily notice them when you went down the list, but they’re both really good.”
A three-year starter, Smith became the heart and soul of a defensive line that accounted for 29½ sacks and helped the Pirates put up a state record three safeties in one game during a 41-0 win over Raytown South. He totaled 51 tackles (one for loss), four sacks and a pass breakup. Stearns missed most of his junior season due to an elbow injury, but he played all 14 games as a senior with 62 tackles (10 for loss), 7½ sacks (most among defensive linemen), two forced fumbles and a fumble recovered.
Platte County turns to junior Mar’Ques Brown, a key special teams player before being off the team in the second half of the season, and sophomores Kohry Woessner and Markus Delfin a the defensive tackle spots. Only Brown has experience at the varsity level.
“They’re young,” Utz said. “There’s some pieces there. The inside is where it’s a little scary, so we will see how it shakes out and there’s some movement we can do.”
The defensive ends won’t be as big of a question mark.
Bradley rocketed up recruiting boards over the offseason and has become a top-50 recruit nationally with his rare combination of size and athleticism, already holding scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State, among others. Forrest Boynton kept Bradley from a starting spot last year, earning all-conference honors with 34 tackles, 5½ sacks, an astonishing six fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.
However, Bradley (6-6, 210) started against Smithville in Week 5 and consistently played in pass situations as an edge rusher. He finished the season with 11 tackles (two for loss), six sacks and seven quarterback pressures.
Walls (6-3, 220) returns for a second season as a starter after piling up 45 tackles, tied for a team-high 13 for loss, 4½ sacks and one forced fumble. He posed a consistent run-stopping presence as a junior but also showed ability to get to the quarterback and could benefit from extra attention paid to Bradley on passing downs.
Utz also expects sophomore Tucker McDowell, son of new assistant coach Eric McDowell to provide depth up front.
Platte County enters 2020 with no question marks at linebacker. Both starters return in senior standouts Trevor Scott and Blaine Keuhn in the Pirates’ 4-2-5 defensive alignment.
“Those guys are good; they’re really good,” Utz said. “Trevor is super fast. Blaine fills really well. One of the best duos we’ve had in a long time.”
Entering his third full year as a starter but having cracked the lineup as a freshman, Scott is the lone returning all-stater for Platte County after recording team-highs 88 tackles (8½ for loss) and sacks with 10, while adding a forced fumble and a fumble recovery he nearly returned for a touchdown in a win over Grandview. He also became Platte County’s first-ever nominee for the Buck Buchanan Award, given annually to the top defensive player in the Kansas City metro area in the two largest classifications on either side of the state line.
Scott has already accumulated 202 tackles (21½ for loss), 19 sacks and an interception in his career.
Prior to Scott, Gabe Harmon earned unanimous all-state honors in 2019, and Keuhn took over for him as a junior. He responded with 76 tackles (tied for team-high 13 for loss), 4½ sacks and a forced fumble.
The positives: Platte County returns three players with starting experience in the defensive backfield. The negative: the Pirates must replace a pair of all-state safeties.
However, Platte County does have five projected starters with varsity experience in key spots.
Cade Fowler, a senior, enters his third season as a starter at his third position. He debuted in a sophomore season cut short by injury as a cornerback and moved to free safety a year ago. He moves down into one of two key strong safety spots that require equal parts run support, pass coverage and blitzing. The other spot will belong to Cameron Wolfe, who served as a hybrid linebacker/safety and special teams ace as a sophomore.
Fowler and Wolfe will fill the roles held by Division I signee Collin Tyson (Eastern Illinois) and Luke Filger. Tyson earned unanimous all-state honors with 58 tackles (five for loss), two forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, a sack and a key blocked punt in a state quarterfinal win over Grain Valley. He moved over from cornerback in his first two seasons as starter and hit his stride late in the season, playing his best game in the state semifinal win over Webb City.
A starter as a junior after Fowler went down with his injury late in the Eason, Filger put up career-highs of 72 tackles (6½ for loss), five sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble and two pass breakups.
As a junior, Fowler put up 53 tackles (five for loss), two interceptions, five pass breakups and one forced fumble. Wolfe finished with 16 tackles, 1½ sacks and two interceptions.
Platte County also lost cornerback Spencer Cupp from last year’s starting unit, although his season ended in the Class 5 quarterfinal against Grain Valley. That opened up playing time for seniors Landon Fulk and Dylan Mitchell. Both will be expected starters this year with Fulk moving back to free safety and Mitchell likely opposite junior Garrett Smith at the cornerback spots.
Smith will be the most experienced of the three after a standout sophomore season. He recorded 32 tackles, team-highs of four interceptions and 10 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovered. He returned two of his interceptions for touchdowns — the only two defensive scores of the season for the Pirates.
“The secondary is pretty well set,” Utz said. “Fowler is a kid we can move around a little bit. Wolfe’s a kid we can move around a bit and has some size and comes up and hits. Garrett’s mental side is better, not that it was bad last year, but he’s even more confident than he was. He looks great.”
Fulk had 12 tackles and a pass breakup as a junior, while Dylan Mitchell had one tackle in limited playing time.
Platte County continues to consistently field one of the best kicking games around, and that should change this year.
Cole Rhoden, a senior, returns at kicker after going 56 of 58 on extra points and 7 of 13 on field goals as a junior in his first year as a stater. Notably, he went 5 of 8 on attempts from 30 yards out or longer with a long of 43. His 43-yarder was the game-winner against Grain Valley, and he booted a key 38-yarder right before halftime in a 24-21 win over Webb City.
“He did nothing but gain confidence on the playoff run,” said Utz, who added that Parsons will remain the holder on extra points and field goals with Harmon as the long snapper. “I don’t know how many times they tried to ice him, and he still made it. His leg’s even stronger now. He’s solid there. It’s a true weapon to have him there.”
Rhoden also takes over as the punter from Ruhnke, who punted 44 times last year with an average of 34.9 yards per kick and 17 downed inside the 20. Rhoden punted five times for 136 yards as a junior but will receive more chances this season.