KANSAS CITY — The end didn’t come swiftly or decisively, and ultimately, that might have made the outcome even more difficult.
Park Hill came all the way back for a 25-27, 20-25, 25-14, 25-22, 18-16 victory in Tuesday’s Class 5 District 16 championship game at Oak Park to stun top-seeded Platte County for the title and deny the Pirates a second straight playoff appearance. The second-seeded Trojans faced a potential straight-set loss but dominated the third set, erased a big deficit in the fourth set and survived a chaotic, back-and-forth fifth set that featured four match points — two for each team.
Platte County won the first two meetings between the teams earlier this season, but the third played out in a fashion not many would have expected.
“Crowd was amazing tonight; atmosphere was amazing,” Platte County coach Katlyn Donovan said. “Didn’t come out in our favor, but like I told the girls, if we were to lose, that is the best way to go down. I feel like we were in every single point.”
Platte County (24-10) entered 2021 off of the deepest playoff in program history, having won a Class 4 district title a year ago and reaching the state semifinals for the first time. The Pirates eventually finished in third place after losing a heartbreaking semifinal but coming back to win the final match.
In the reclassification cycle, Platte County received a more difficult assignment when moved up to Class 5 in just the second year of the five-class setup for the sport. Still, the Pirates lost just twice outside of tournament play this season to earn the top seed, and the two prior wins over Park Hill made them a favorite to advance back to the playoffs but this time in the state’s largest classification.
Instead, the Class 5 District 16 championship match proved to be the final chance for seniors Kate Brown (15 kills, three block assists, eight digs), Emerson Walter (season-high 47 assists, team-highs four service aces and 19 digs), Mary Grace Hunter (team-highs of 16 kills, 19 digs and 47 serve receives with only two errors) and Morgan Cox (17 digs) to play for Platte County. Walter finished with a Pirates single-season record for assists with 859, while Brown ended her career as the all-time leader in kills at 949 — a career-high 336 this year.
“I’m going to miss these seniors so much — just great kids,” Donovan said. “They’re good volleyball players, but they’re even better people off the court. The memories we’ve made, like I told them in the locker room, not a lot of people have the success you’ve had the last four years. You got to be a part of that.”
Potentially headed toward the sweep, Platte County went into the third set with Brown on the bench due to dizziness spells. Park Hill took full advantage in a dominant 25-14 win to extend the match.
However, the momentum ended up short lived.
Platte County jumped to a 4-0 lead in the fourth set capped with one of eight blocks for the Pirates, this one combined between junior Karsyn Stehlik (five block assists) and sophomore Tatianna Murray (six block assists). Park Hill eventually took a timeout down 8-3 following a point where Walter stuck her right hand flat on the gym floor for an unlikely, last-ditch-effort dig that set up a kill for Hunter, much to the delight of the Platte County bench.
“I can’t be upset with how we played tonight,” Donovan said. “Everything we talked about in the locker room, everything we told the girls to do, they did, so we can’t ask for anything more.”
Platte County stretched the lead all the way to 10-3 with sophomore Kendall Johnson (12 kills) providing a strong attack in the middle. Park Hill would close within 13-10, only for Walter to push it back to seven with three straight service points in another four-point flurry for the Pirates.
A kill from Johnson kept Park Hill from tying it at 19 and Hunter did the same to prevent a tie at 20, but eventually the Trojans evened the score at 22-22 after trailing the entire set to that point. They ended up closing the set on a 4-0 run to even the match at two sets apiece and creating more uncertainty with Brown continuing to be on and off the floor due to dizziness.
Platte County won the fifth-set coin toss and opened with the ball, only to immediately give it back without scoring a point on Walter’s valuable time at the service line. Brown answered with a kill that started a four-point run and gave the Pirates a 4-1 lead.
Park Hill came right back to tie it 4-4, setting up what would be the eventful closing stretch.
Platte County opened up a 7-5 lead but gave the ball back on a service error. Johnson came back with a kill, and Hunter hit one of her only ace to make it 9-6 on the way to a potentially comfortable 10-6 lead.
Instead, the set culminated with a series of lengthy points, starting with a kill from Stehlik — one of her 13 — to make it 13-10, only for Park Hill to pull within 13-12 and force Donovan into a timeout. The tension and emotions showed throughout the gymnasium on each successively more important point.
“I try to keep it cool, but sometimes I just can’t help it,” Donovan said. “I think I lost about two pounds sweating tonight. We had a nice little lead there, but I don’t know whether we got comfortable or what. But Park Hill didn’t quit. They kept swinging away.”
On the next point, Johnson hit a spoke toward the back line that was ultimately ruled out to reactions of disbelief on Platte County’s side of the net. The Pirates’ next spike was also ruled out of bounds to set up Park Hill for a match point, only for the officials to change the call, ruling the ball hit a Trojans’ player on the block to give the point and 14-13 lead to Platte County.
That brought Platte County sophomore Ava Wheeler (one ace, eight digs) to the service line, but Park Hill staved off elimination, won two straight points and earned its first match point. After a timeout from Donovan, the Pirates won two straight points to earn a second match point but couldn’t take advantage this time either.
Park Hill (12-16-1) would win the final three points, including a play that set up the fourth and final match point where an unfortunate bounce off the ceiling unraveled Platte County’s chance to return to the ball.
“Park Hill is a great team,” Donovan said. “They’re big; they play a tough schedule throughout the whole season. Their record does not indicate the type of team they are.”
The Class 5 District 16 championship match started and finished with tight scores.
In the first set, Platte County opened with a 3-0 lead that included Walter’s first ace and an early kill from Brown. Park Hill came right back with three unanswered, and the score remained tight until the Pirates surged out to a 12-7 advantage that led to a timeout.
A return error on a Cox serve out of the stoppage made it 13-7, only for Park Hill to go on an extended 8-2 run to tie the score at 15-15. The Trojans had their first lead at 21-20, but the first set also featured ties at 19, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25 after Platte County survived a set point. The Pirates had an initial set point with Walter serving at 24-23 but couldn’t close it out at that point, but they closed on a 3-0 run to win the first set.
“We started off really back and forth in that first set,” Donovan said.
Park Hill took early leads in the second set of 5-2, 6-3 and 7-4, and Platte County sophomore reserve setter Emma Harned looked like a potential unlikely hero with a long service run that included both of her aces and put the Pirates back in front at 15-14. After a timeout, she continued to expand the lead with three more points to make it 18-14.
A replayed point gave Park Hill potential life, but Platte County won both the original and the redo to hold momentum. A kill from Brown gave the Pirates the 2-0 lead and seemingly control of the postseason matchup.
“I think we got complacent there in that third set, just expecting they were going to let us have it, but that wasn’t the case at all,” Donovan said.
Instead, Brown couldn’t play at full strength the rest of the way, and Park Hill rebounded behind a trio of players in double digits for kills — juniors Shaye Koski (23), Aisha Aiono (15) and Devin Hoover (14).
Platte County’s players quickly huddled on the court one last time after the final point then accepted and left the Class 5 District 16 runnerup plaque on the bench, an unwanted consolation prize in an otherwise exemplary season. The Pirates won 28 matches each of the past three years and continued their winning ways with 24 in 2021 despite a trio of tough tournaments featuring a lot of top out-of-state competition.
In addition, Platte County finished off a third straight unbeaten Suburban Conference Blue Division title and takes a 39-match unbeaten streak in league play into next season.
Platte County 3, Staley 1
Walter played effectively less than a week after suffering a minor hand injury in a car accident, leading the Pirates to a 25-17, 25-21, 17-25, 25-23 victory in a Class 5 District 16 semifinal at Oak Park High School.
Brown paced Platte County’s attack with 20 kills, while Johnson added 12, Hunter eight and Stehlik six. The quartet benefitted from Walter’s 46 assists to go with 11 digs.
In addition to her team-high in kills, Brown also topped Platte County in service aces (six) and digs (19). Hunter contributed nine digs, while Hunter had nine and Wheeler and Stehlik finished with eight apiece. Cox had seven digs.
Platte County also continued its late-season run of strong play at the net on defense with Murray totaling four block assists and Stehlik three.