KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The dreary backdrop served as an unfortunately fitting backdrop for what ended up a disappointing conclusion to an occasionally promising and consistently challenging season.
Platte County senior quarterback Dylan Zimmerman threw touchdown passes to senior Chandavian Bradley and junior wide receiver Dawsen Mizell on back-to-back possessions early in the second half of a Class 5 District 8 semifinal Friday to give the Pirates the lead over Oak Park and seemingly set the stage for a minor upset. Instead, the second-seeded Northmen scored 19 unanswered points in what became a 33-21 victory at Oak Park High School, taking advantage of a tiring defensive unit unable to maintain dominant form.
In the end, Platte County’s five turnovers were too much to overcome in a rematch played during a persistent, steady and frigid rain — conditions that only subsided as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“Obviously, you’re coming into a matchup where you’re the lower seed on the road in districts. You’ve got to play better,” Utz said. “And we did some good things, but at the same time, we had way too many turnovers and gave them way too many chances, had some opportunities we didn’t take advantage of. It’s unfortunate.”
Platte County (5-6) didn’t score over final 18 minutes, 50 seconds after a 32-yard touchdown connection between Zimmerman and Mizell — their seventh scoring connection over the past three weeks after he tied a school record with four in the Class 5 District 8 first round win over William Chrisman a week earlier. The Pirates led 21-14 near the midway point of the second half following the two-point conversion pass to star senior wide receiver Carter Salzman in his return from a broken collarbone that sidelined him the previous eight weeks.
Oak Park’s resolute rushing attack accounted for 236 yards of offense on four keys drives late in the second half, resulting in three touchdowns and a clock-chewing, game-sealing drive. Platte County’s defense finally yielded some big runs after repeatedly showing off the improvement for a unit gashed start to finish on run plays in a 47-25 loss to the Northmen in Week 5. Pirates sophomore linebacker Cobe Pollard (10 tackles, one for loss, one fumble recovery), senior safety Andy McClure (nine tackles, two for loss, one forced fumble, sophomore linebacker Darrell Smith (seven tackles), junior defensive lineman Tucker McDowell (six tackles, one for loss) and senior cornerback Garrett Smith-Dean (three tackles, three for loss) stood out in helping to contain the majority of 58 rushing attempts.
“I think they were gassed. I think they were on the field way too much,” Utz said. “In a situation where you have a heavy run team that Oak Park has in the adversity (our defense) was in, that’s asking a lot. I think it got to a point where it was a situation where they got up a score and we’re exhausted on top of it, Oak Park was able to keep pounding on it and wearing us down.”
Zimmerman turned just five completions into three touchdowns in one of the most difficult starts for a Platte County quarterback in recent history. The rain and wind were clear factors in his 5-for-26 performance, finishing with 169 yards and three interceptions while attempting to navigate the adverse circumstances.
Oak Park (9-2) ended up outgaining the Pirates 327-245 on offense to earn a rematch with top-seeded Fort Osage in Friday’s Class 5 District 8 title game. The Indians (10-1) knocked off North Kansas City for the second time in four weeks, this time a runaway 42-7 victory, and now will try to repeat the result of a Week 9 triumph over the Northmen that determined the bracket’s top two spots in the regular season finale.
That set up Platte County’s opportunity at redemption from the earlier loss to Oak Park when mistakes piled up and contributed to the lopsided final result, only to play Round 2 in weather seemingly more beneficial to the Northmen’s multi-pronged rushing attack that featured sophomore lead back Travon Pankey (34 attempts, 220 yards), senior running back Marlon Gant (10 carries, 67 yards) and senior quarterback Aiden Hinkle (seven carries, 53 yards. The trio combined for all five of their touchdowns, while Hinkle went 1-for-7 for 2 yards passing.
“The weather might have played a little bit of a factor, but they were playing in it, too, so you can’t really blame that,” Utz said.
After opening the prior matchup with a 9 1/2-minute touchdown drive, Oak Park went three-and-out and punted on its first two possessions.
Platte County rotated personnel and adjusted formations resulting in a wide range of contributors that stymied the Northmen’s diverse run game for most of the first half. The defensive front included varied combinations of McDowell, junior Kohry Woessner (six tackles), Bradley (two tackles), sophomore Kameron Doyle (two tackles), senior Blake Rueckert (one tackle, one for loss) and Mar’Ques Brown (one tackle). Bradley, the speedy edge rusher for most of his career, often lined up on the interior and caused issues beyond his stat line.
While Pollard and Smith maintained their starring roles, Platte County also looked to senior Cameron Dean (five tackles) and sophomore Archie Wesley in certain packages at linebacker, while sophomore safety Caden McGhee turned in the best game of his young career (six tackles, one interception); senior safety Cameron Wolfe made big contributions with three tackles (one for loss) and a pass breakup, while junior Jordan Burnett (five tackles, one very significant to stop a reverse in a one-one-situation) continued to flash as the preferred corner opposite of Smith-Dean.
“As I told them, if you take Week 5 to what we did tonight even with some of the mistakes, the kids played with a lot of heart and a lot of character and made a lot of plays that they didn’t the first time we played them,” Utz said. “They can be proud of that.”
Platte County also didn’t gain a first down and punted on its first two possession but seemingly held the advantage in field position and energy. Momentum shifted on the Pirates’ third possession when Zimmerman tried to keep a first-down pass play alive and ended up throwing his first interception after seeing a pair of early catchable passes mishandled for incompletions that could have been big plays or scores.
Oak Park returned the pick 20 yards to Platte County’s 35. That led to the first first down for either team when Oak Park converted a third and 1 with 2 1/2 minutes left in the opening quarter, but the Pirates managed to keep the game scoreless with a defensive stand resulting in a turnover on downs.
“Way better, way better,” Utz said. “I’m proud of (the defense). They had opportunities. Even on bad field position, (our defense) did a great job. It’s frustrating. The weather wasn’t to the point where we couldn’t take a few shots, and we had two of them wide open that we dropped early that would’ve been a huge difference.”
At that point, field position had been flipped, and Platte County didn’t gain its initial first down until after falling behind 14-0.
Oak Park sacked Zimmerman on back-to-back plays early in the second quarter, and the latter came with the quarterback trying to navigate out of the pocket and find a receiver that resulted in a forced fumble. He tried to pick it up on the move but couldn’t corral the loose ball.
The defense recovered despite Salzman coming out of a large pile with the football, and Oak Park finally turned a short field into an initial touchdown on a short field.
Deep in Platte County territory, Oak Park still needed three plays to go 11 yards, converting a third and 8 with Gant’s outside run to the right that went into the end zone just inside the right pylon to put the Northmen up 7-0 despite objections from the Pirates coaches upset at what they saw as a missed holding penalty that aided Gant in reaching the end zone and a mark off that could’ve offered a reprieve on Zimmerman’s second turnover of the half.
“Dylan’s a kid that’s done nothing but probably be one of the best teammates we’ve ever had,” Utz said. “He’s up there with so many kids over my tenure. He’s a great kid. You want the best for him all the time, and a kid, an athlete, a competitor that puts himself at that position — it’s a hard position to play, and he’s willing to take it. He’s trying to do what’s best for our team. If it works out, we’re saying how great he is. It doesn’t and it’s like, ‘You’re doing too much.’ That’s a fine line, and I can’t say enough good things about Dylan.”
Oak Park’s ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, and Utz elected to force a rekick. Emilio Espino-Cruz, the Northmen’s stocky kicker, then blasted a line drive toe poke off a Platte County player on the front line of the return team resulting in a a scrum for the live ball.
Again, Oak Park recovered, and Pankey busted out for a 46-yard touchdown three plays later to double the lead to 14-0 with 6:30 left before halftime.
Just like in first meeting, Platte County fell behind two scores and were forced to turn almost exclusively to the pass from there. The Pirates’ consistently refigured offensive line with only junior left tackle Muyonta Maxwell and senior left guard Tyler Burch starting in the same spot all season had shown improvement in recent weeks in back-to-back wins against overmatched William Chrisman, and the Pirates went with senior Sage Lutz at center for a fourth straight game, while senior Braden Parker remained shifted over from that spot to right guard and only briefly splitting snaps with senior Brody Gates. Quinn Lightle, a promising freshman, remained the right tackle.
Despite the recent success, Platte County managed only 76 yards rushing on 26 attempts with Zimmerman leading the way with 30 yards on a combination of nine tries combined between designed runs, scrambles and sacks taken. The Pirates returned senior Nate Walls (shoulder) from one game of rest and gave him six carries for 24 yards, while breakout sophomore Dayton Doll managed just 10 yards on eight attempts and didn’t catch a pass a week after rushing for the team’s best single-game total for this year of 138 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t catch a pass but still ended up leading Platte County in receptions on the season with 41 after spending most of the year as a wide receiver in wake of Salzman’s lengthy injury layoff. The Pirates also gave some limited snaps to currently run-first freshman reserve quarterback Rocco Marriott (two carries, 13 yards).
With the early offensive struggles running and passing, Platte County’s initial first down came on a roughing the punter call that negated a three-and-out after Oak Park’s second touchdown. The penalty took on added importance three plays later when Marriott went 13 yards on a read-option run, and after a holding penalty, Zimmerman uncorked a 36-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field while under pressure to find Bradley behind the defense on a post pattern going from left to right to cut the deficit to 14-7.
In the first meeting between the two teams, Bradley hauled in a Hail Mary touchdown near the end of the first half, an improbably juggling 40-yard connection that helped change the momentum and put Platte County back within striking distance at halftime after a nearly disastrous stretch of play that resulted in a 26-6 deficit.
“Again, it just shows how great of an athlete he is being able to make the plays that he does. He’s a special kid,” Utz said of Bradley, a Tennessee commit as a defensive end who played an increasingly important role as a spot wide receiver and finished the year with 12 catches for 401 yards (33.4 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns.
On the very next snap, McClure forced Pankey to fumble, and Pollard, who went from fifth-string linebacker to start the year to a 66-tackle (6 1/2 for loss), three-sack, one-forced-fumble, one-fumble-recovered, one-interception, one-blocked-punt-for-a-touchdown season, fell on the loose ball.
Platte County couldn’t take advantage after the ensuring drive ended near midfield when Zimmerman’s attempted screen pass to Doll stayed high and ended up deflected into the air and resulting in his second interception. The Pirates’ defense held again for a three-and-out, and Oak Park went into halftime with a just on next play but couldn’t take advantage when the ensuing drive ended in a second interception for Zimmerman on high screen pass deflected into air and picked off.
Platte County’s defense held again with a three-and-out, and Oak Park went into halftime with just the seven-point lead even with three turnovers plus the inadvertent onside kick that essentially acted as a fourth.
“We had a nice little spark there (at the end of the first half), and we were able to keep it going in the third quarter,” Utz said.
Platte County took opening kickoff of the second quarter, and Zimmerman again found Bradley behind the defense three plays later for 76-yard score. He came back to the pass for a basket catch and then raced to the end zone zone unchallenged for his second and final reception that gave him his first and only career 100-yard game (112 yards) and pulled Platte County within 14-13.
However, Platte County senior Jordan Hedrick, dressed out for just the third game and kicking in only his second game, missed the extra point, leaving the Pirates still behind at 14-13. He came into difficult circumstances as the third kicker used this season due to injuries to senior Aaron Cordova, including a season-ending dislocated elbow suffered in a Class 3 District 8 semifinal soccer game.
Oak Park immediately went three-and-out and gave up another short touchdown drive.
This time, Walls carried twice for 13 yards sandwiched around an 18-yard scramble for Zimmerman while calling out blocks downfield. On Platte County’s second-and-1 play from the 32, he found Mizell, who finished with two catches for 42 yards, along the right sideline in one-on-one coverage. Mizell went high to secure the catch and then maneuvered into the end zone to give the Pirates their first lead in two meetings with Oak Park this season.
The moment took on added notability when Zimmerman connected with Salzman on the two-point conversion, given the potentially season-ending injury he suffered late in a Week 2 loss to Smithville.
“I’m thrilled for him that actually got back in and got to play,” said Utz of Salzman, who eventually exited this game as well after taking a wicked shot on an attempted catch over the middle in the fourth quarter. “To see him make a catch and to be able to have that closure for him, it’s a big deal.”
Platte County’s defense continued to face tests to preserve the lead and offer a chance to extend the lead. The dooming sequence came on back-to-back drives in the third quarter.
First, Zimmerman lost a fumble while attempting to turn a high snap into a punt while navigating defensive traffic and then his third interception. Off the fifth and final Platte County turnover, Oak Park mounted the tying touchdown drive late in the third quarter on Hinkle’s 7-yard touchdown run on a QB power play set up by a 23-yard from Pankey.
“Two-possession lead and then we are talking about the other stuff,” Utz said. “It would have been completely switched. We just couldn’t get that lead. We just couldn’t get that extra score when we needed it.”
Platte County then went three-and-out, only to regain possession near midfield when McGhee came up with the first interception of his career. This came after a slippery errant pass earlier in the half slipped off his fingertips. The Pirates didn’t manage any points off of either of their turnovers and punted the ball right back.
Oak Park then closed with the go-ahead and game-sealing touchdowns on the next two drives. The Northmen went 69 yards on five plays capped with 28-yard Hinkle touchdown to run. An illegal substitution penalty and sack negated Zimmerman’s eventual 15-yard completion to senior wide receiver Dom Spears, and Zimmerman then uncorked the best of his seven punts, a 42-yarder downed at the 9.
On the next snap, Pankey broke an initial tackle near the line of scrimmage and burst into an opening for what ended up a 91-yard score. The extra point failed on each of the final two scores, but the damage was done.
“It’s (a loss) that’s not going to sit well because of the missed opportunities,” Utz said.
Platte County’s next drive reached the Oak Park 36 on 19 yards rushing on two scrambles for Zimmerman, a final completion of 10 yards to Mizell and a pass interference penalty but ultimately stalled out. The Northmen gained three more first downs to run out the final 4:46 as the Pirates exhausted their remaining timeouts while the realization hit that season would come to an end.
“It’s a great game, and it’s a team game,” Utz said. “At the same time, a player can have an unbelievable individual performance, but he needs help from his teammates to make plays, too. There’s never a guarantee so it can be frustrating, especially when you feel like you’re doing everything right and you can’t quite get through that or break through that.”
Platte County failed to reach a district title game for the first time since 2014 and posted the first losing record since 2013. However, those facts perhaps don’t accurately reflect the contributions of a large senior class melding with a steadily increasing number of talented underclassmen.
All five teams Platte County lost to this season — Smithville, Kearney, Grain Valley, Oak Park and Park Hill South — will all play for playoff berths this weekend. Additionally, Raytown, which the Pirates beat 31-26 in Week 6 to start a 4-1 stretch that allowed them to reach .500, plays Grain Valley in the Class 5 District 7 final.
Platte County lost their first two games this season two of the top teams in Class 4, first in overtime to Kearney and then by just three to Smithville. That gave way to a 1-4 start that included injuries and significant missed time for Salzman, Wolfe, Mizell, McDowell, Gates, Wesley, freshman wide receiver Tres Baskerville and Cordova before Smith lost two games from a concussion suffered against Raytown.
“The schedule has put us in a position where we’ve had some adversity,” Utz said. “There’s nothing I can say to them right now that’s going to make them feel better any better, but with a little reflection, they’ll look at their careers they were able to experience and they have to be proud of it. I think the the thing that goes a little bit unnoticed is our schedule was very tough, very challenging. When you have a season that starts out 1-4, which is so uncharacteristic for us, that they’re hearing about it from people outside the program, people inside the program and themselves. That’s a tremendous amount of pressure, there’s a lot to say about how we finished in the situation we were in with injuries and other factors. They have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”
The 19 players in this year’s senior class predictably includes a unique blend of talent and personalities that started their careers mostly on the peripheral of the 2019 and 2020 runs to the Class 4 and Class 5 Show-Me Bowls resulting in back-to-back state runnerup finishes. They were part of 13 wins the past two seasons as schedule difficulty ratcheted up in wake of those breakthrough seasons.
No one provided more visibility than Bradley, the highest-profile Division I recruit in program history who might now might have the possibility of his college career ending up on offense or defense. No one played more snaps than three-year starters Smith-Dean (14 career interceptions, four returned for TDs) and Salzman, who unfortunately had the majority of his final season interrupted by injury.
Thankfully, Platte County were also able to turn to Tristan Magnuson (13 catches, 133 yards, two TDs), lanky and dangerous second-year player Spears (29 catches, 512 yards, four TDs) and reliable possession receiver Brennan Rich (10 catches, 158 yards, one TD) at wideout. The Pirates’ offensive line included the versatile combo of Lutz (tackle/center) and Parker (center/guard) as second-year starters, Gates (guard/tackle) plus Burch, who started all 11 games at left guard after offseason weight loss helped him emerge as an under appreciated presence up front.
Those players allowed for Zimmerman (186-339; 2,648 yards and 26 TDs) to enter the district semifinal on a record pace for passing yards per game that would have allowed him to challenge single-season records had Platte County been able to make a postseason run. He most often handed off to Walls, a two-year starter after transferring from Park Hill who initially projected as a wide receiver before becoming the Pirates’ leading rusher each of the past two seasons (375 yards, three TDs plus 19 catches, 213 yards and two more scores receiving as a senior).
Wolfe played a versatile role at defensive back as a three-year contributor and two-year starter, while McClure made the most of earning a starting spot, leading the Pirates in tackles this season (93 plus seven for loss).
Dean and reserve Peyton Nickell took on additional snaps and duties as Platte County’s linebacking corps suffered through injury issues much of the season, while mild-mannered, undersized Rueckert became an indispensably versatile part of the defensive line rotation and passionate and supportive Brown had stretches as an extremely effective cog at defensive tackle occupying blocks and making plays.
The list even included Cordova, who moved back to Platte County after two years across the state pursuing athletic opportunities outside of high school to become a two-sport standout. Hedrick ended up replacing him for the final two games — first while Cordova went on a college visit and then after his soccer injury left him in a sling on the sideline for the district semifinal.
Previously known as a baseball player before being recruited to start at goalkeeper this year for the soccer team, Hedrick became a necessary and capable option after backup kicker/two-way junior lineman Gage Fulk suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the first meeting with Oak Park.
“Every senior class is a little bit different, and every senior class has a different scenario to take on. They knew they had big shoes to fill, and there are some tremendous player, tremendous kids. I think they gave us everything they could, and we got everything out of them that we could. I’m extremely proud of them. I’m always proud of my kids, but they are a unique group and I love ’em.”