North Kansas City’s talented defensive front hounded harassed and hit Chris Ruhnke from beginning to end in Friday’s Class 5 District 8 semifinal.
Platte County’s senior quarterback flinched but never faltered, and when necessary, he stood tall in the pocket and made the plays that mattered. Ruhnke led a pair of touchdown drives in the second half to back the Pirates’ second-half shutout to earn a measure of revenge and extend the season for at least another week.
Ruhnke’s picturesque touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Dayton Mitchell tied the score on the last play of the third quarter, and four straight completions set up the game-winner late in the fourth quarter of Platte County’s come-from-behind 24-17 win at Pirate Stadium. Stalled and stymied at certain points, the Pirates’ second-year starter under center shoed his big-game credentials again, finishing 20 of 37 for 257 yards and adding a critical rushing score on a first half scramble in a memorable performance that will stand among his best even without overtly impressive individual stats.
“He’s our heart. I love the guy,” said Mitchell, who finished with four catches for 52 yards and the one score.
Trailing at halftime for the first time this season, top-seeded Platte County (9-1) avenged a Week 4 loss and advanced to host third-seeded Staley (7-4) in this week’s Class 5 District 8 championship.
The winning points for Platte County were scored on a quick five-play drive that included a pair of completions to sophomore wide receiver Carter Salzman sandwiched around junior wide receiver Cole Rhoden’s lone catch of the game. Ruhnke then hit senior wide receiver Colby Rollins down the home sidline to put the Pirates inside the 5, and senior running back Cayden Davis bowled into the end zone from 2 yards out on the next play.
Platte County led 24-17 with 4 minutes, 7 seconds to go.
“We knew with a good team like North Kansas City and their good defense, I just trusted my guys to make some plays,” Ruhnke said.
North Kansas City (5-5), which lost four of its last six, ended up with one chance left to even the score. After a short run on first down, the Hornets threw three straight incompletions with Platte County sophomore defensive end Chandavian Bradley hitting quarterback Kail Williams as he released the ball on third down and a long pass down the sideline on fourth down sailed well long.
Platte County’s defense entered having not allowed a point since the fourth quarter of a Week 7 win over Winnetonka and coming off back-to-back shutouts against Raytown South and Lansing (Kan.) to close the regular season.
North Kansas City managed less than 100 yards of offense in the second half, committed two turnovers and came up short on two key fourth-down plays.
Platte County junior linebacker Trevor Scott and senior defensive back Luke Filger recorded a team-high 10 tackles apiece, while senior defensive tackle Alex Stearns added nine and junior linebacker Blaine Keuhn eight. Scott, Keuhn and junior defensive Jaydon Walls (six tackles) each had a stop for a loss, and Walls also forced a fumble. Pirates senior defensive tackle Keaton Smith and senior safety Collin Tyson were next on the stat sheet with five stops each.
North Kansas City completed only five passes and ran for just 4.1 yard per carry on 41 attempts.
“We can’t overlook the fact they beat us earlier, so they’re a good team,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “They’re offensive line is pretty solid; the defensive line is really solid. (Our) defense after halftime stepped up and played just a little bit harder and were able to get some things done. They took the game plan and took the adjustments at halftime and made the plays. We were able keep them out of the end zone, and then we got a couple of scores.”
However, big plays in the first half helped North Kansas City to three scoring drives, and the Hornets took the ball out of halftime with a chance to add to the lead and really increase the difficulty for a potential comeback.
Instead, Walls forced a fumble on the second play of the third quarter, and Platte County sophomore cornerback Garrett Smith fell on the ball at the North Kansas City 17. But three plays later, Hornets junior Domonique Orange — a big-time Division I recruit — snatched a Ruhnke pass out of the air and an obvious block in the back penalty negated his long return.
The two teams then traded punts, and Platte County’s first fourth-down stop finally changed the game’s flow.
North Kansas City drove inside the Pirates’ 20 and ate more than 8 minutes off the clock before turning the ball over on downs after a run for no gain on a fourth-and-4 at the 15. Ruhnke then led an eight-play scoring drive extended with a pass interference call against the Hornets on an third and 15.
On the scoring play, Ruhnke floated a pass over Mitchell’s shoulders and out of reach of two defenders. Mitchell hauled the ball in on the tips of his fingers and wrestled away from one would-be-tackler to tie the score at 17-17 going to the fourth quarter.
“I wasn’t even out of my break, and Chris already threw it,” Mitchell said. “I look up, and the ball was already there. I couldn’t ask for a better ball. I caught it and then I just tried to rip the defender off me.
“I felt like that gave us a lot of momentum.”
The teams traded punts again early in the fourth quarter before North Kansas City moved into Pirates’ territory with a chance for a go-ahead score. Instead, the Hornets went for a fourth-and-2 at the 34, and Williams’ pass fell incomplete for another turnover on downs.
Platte County’s winning drive was swift and decisive.
Ruhnke hit Salzman for 15 yards over the middle with the sophomore reeling in a pass that led him upfield. Rhoden then added a 14-yard reception to quickly put the Pirates at the 34.
On the next snap, Ruhnke lofted a pass straight over the shoulders of Salzman, who somehow tracked the ball and made an extremely difficult catch.
“After I threw it, I honestly thought it was going to be incomplete, and I was just amazed he caught that,” Ruhnke said of Salzman, who finished with four catches for 48 yards.
Ruhnke immediately threw a pass that stopped Rollins down inside the 5 for a 23-yard gain — the last of his team-high six catches for a team-high 81 yards. He nearly scored on the play, but a tripping penalty stopped him and moved the ball down to the North Kansas City 2.
“Colby, to get down there on the goal line, on the next catch, it was just a great series,” Utz said.
Davis ran in the game-winning touchdown, and after North Kansas City’s quick turnover on downs, Platte County’s running game received its chance to finish off the win. The Pirates went to a lot of five-wide sets to spread out a defense that featured Orange and fellow Division I recruits sophomore Edric Hill and senior Daniel Joiner on the defensive line.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the fourth-down stop put Platte County at the 35.
Davis, who finished with a team-high 22 yards rushing on 10 carries to go with two catches for 18 yards, lost a yard on the first play, but Platte County junior running back Ben McDaniel barreled up the middle for 14 yards and a first down on the next play. Eventually, the Pirates were able to kneel out the game’s remainder.
The closing stretch rewarded the offensive line of senior tackles Trey Butcher and Colby Guffey, junior guards Caleb Kelley and Joe Nicholson and senior center Jesse Schillinger after they allowed six sacks and struggled to open up running lanes against one of the best defensive fronts in the state.
“I think they really stepped up after half; I was getting a lot more time after halftime,” Ruhnke said.
North Kansas City survived potential disaster early after miscuing a game-opening onside kick attempt.
Platte County drove near the red zone but eventually turned it over on downs. On the Hornets’ first offensive play, Pirates senior cornerback Spencer (three tackles) made an acrobatic interception on a deep ball down the visitor’s sideline.
The turnover led to a 28-yard field goal from Rhoden to give Platte County an early 3-0 lead. However, the Pirates would also fail to get points off the second-half fumble recovery and two other short fields.
“We definitely wasted some field position; there’s no doubt,” Utz said. “And that is frustrating — super frustrating.”
North Kansas City answered the field goal with a 26-yarder of its own to tie the score. The Hornets then sacked Ruhnke five times in the remainder of the first half — two on the Platte County drive after their field goal to force a quick punt. A long run on an option play set up running back Michael Moore’s 4-yard touchdown run to make it 10-3 early in the second quarter.
“We came out a little flat-footed,” Mitchell said. “I think we came out a little tired and going about half speed. I feel like we were just a little bit off.”
Platte County responded with a gutsy touchdown drive after Rollins returned the kickoff 38 yards to put the Pirates near midfield. Ruhnke completed a 12-yarder to senior wide receiver Joey Schultz (two catches, 35 yards in the first half) to convert a third and 9, and senior wide receiver Kevin Hughes hauled in a 9-yarder for his only catch of the game.
A 9-yard completion to Mitchell and a second encroachment penalty on North Kansas City put the ball at the 10.
After an incompletion, Ruhnke dropped back on second and goal, didn’t find a receiver and took off for the goal line. He avoided a big hit and reached the ball around the pylon for a game-tying touchdown that looked extremely important at the time given the Pirates’ struggles to that point.
“From the last time we played them, he was a little but frustrated. He kind of took that on his responsibility,” Utz said of Ruhnke, who finished with 12 carries for -23 yards due to sacks despite running the ball well on designed runs and scrambles. “And I knew coming back, he wanted to play this game so he could make up for that. I thought he did a really good job. He made some plays that he needed to.
“The touchdown run, reaching out for the pylon, literally epitomizes his internal fire. He’s not an overly emotional guy, but he’s competitive as heck.”
However, North Kansas City would regain the lead on Joiner’s short touchdown moments later and would go into halftime up 17-10 over a flustered Platte County offense with only 111 yards to that point.
Both teams were coming off a bye for the rematch from 7 weeks earlier when North Kansas City overcame a 31-7 deficit with two defensive touchdowns and two more special teams scores in the second half of a 42-37 win. That still marks the only time this season the Pirates have allowed more than 20 points, and the Hornets appeared ready to make it twice before being shut down in the second half.
“D-line’s just excellent this year, and our linebackers are insane,” said Smith, who had an interception return for a touchdown in the first matchup with North Kansas City to make it 31-7 just seconds into the second half. “It’s the best; it’s the best feeling. As DBs, we’re good with the d-line getting pressure. We know we’re good as long as we do our jobs.”
Due to the win, North Kansas City appeared a threat for the Class 5 District 8 No. 1 seed, but late-season struggles dropped them to No. 4 and set up the earlier-than-expected rematch.
Staley (7-4) upset second-seeded Park Hill South (7-3) on Friday to prevent another district rematch scenario for Platte County, which won the season-opener between the two teams. The Pirates have not played Staley since 2017, and they are 0-6 all-time in the series, which includes regular season losses in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2016 and 2017.
Coming off a run to the Class 4 Show-Me Bowl, Platte County moved up to Class 5 for the first time in program history and that puts them back in the same class as Staley for the first time since 2009. This is the first playoff game between the two teams.
“It’s still cool,” Ruhnke said. “It’s our first year playing Class 5. Playing a team that’s always great like Staley, it will be really exciting.”