COLUMBIA, Mo. — For a program like the one built over the decades at Platte County, three years without a state champion seems like an eternity. In fact, the Pirates entered this year’s Class 3 MSHSAA Wrestling Championships without a state finalist since 2018.
Platte County entered Mizzou Arena on Thursday evening with big team and individual aspirations and left Saturday night with three state finalists, two state champions and a second straight seventh-place team finish. Not all marks were hit, but seniors Eli Rocha and Jaydon Walls took turns ending droughts and sophomore Jake Fernandez capped the weekend with a second straight dramatic victory.
Rocha became a rare four-time state medalist and then reached the 138-pound championship bout for his first state finals appearance. Walls then cruised to an 8-2 win in the 195-pound title match and then watched on as Fernandez used a late penalty point to leave with the 220-pound championship. Additionally, Platte County senior KayLyn Munn finished up her 2-0 win for the 194-pound title on the girls side, giving the Pirates three championships in a span of about 15 minutes.
“It was just crazy and exciting,” Platte County coach Reggie Burress said. “I’m happy for the kids and happy for the community and the parents and everybody.”
The individual titles were the first since Cody Phippen won his third and Sage Smart his first in 2018.
“I take a lot of pride in being the one that ended it,” Walls said. “And the two that followed? Just the cherry on top.”
Platte County also hoped to leave with the fourth Class 3 team state trophy in program history. The Pirates ended up with four total medalists but didn’t produce enough points in the consolation bracket to challenge for a top-four spot.
Eight teams entered with more than Platte County’s seven qualifiers, and even with four semifinalists, the Pirates’ 89 points were 13 back of fourth-place Jefferson City. In addition to the state titles for Walls and Fernandez, Rocha produced the best finish of his career as the runnerup at 138, while senior Blaine Keuhn grabbed a second straight fifth-place medal at 170.
Platte County seniors Jared Parsons (145) and Ben McDaniel (160) — both making meaningful state trips — lost in the first round and went 1-2, while sophomore Caden Hulett went from the 106 quarterfinals to out of the consolation bracket two matches later for a second straight season. The mixed results left the Pirates in seventh place for a second straight season with seven combined medalists in that span.
“I think what’s going to stick with me the most is just our brotherhood, going in there every day, working our ass off,” Walls said. “Not even arguably, the hardest sport in high school, we go in there and bust our ass every day and that builds a special kind of bond.”
Rocha placed fourth at state as a freshman and then injury defaulted to sixth as a sophomore due to a banged-up knee for what was Platte County’s only medal that season. He lost to the eventual state champion both years and went into the postseason undefeated as a junior before losing to Neosho’s Eli Zar in the 145-pound semifinals, leaving him with just one chance left to reach a state final and earn an elusive championship.
Down to 138 this year, Rocha’s final go-round started nearly perfect with a 20-second pin in the first round against North Point freshman Logan Redel (12-16). He then faced Hillsboro junior Nate Barnett (34-13), the No. 1 seed out of District 2.
Rocha missed large portions of the season due to head and then ankle injuries. He injury defaulted his Class 3 District 4 title match a week earlier to rest the still-injured ankle and continued to receive treatment throughout the state tournament.
However, pushed to three periods against Barnett, Rocha scored the first takedown and then a reversal with 53 seconds left in regulation for a tight but comfortable 4-2 decision victory.
“I felt pretty good,” Rocha said. “I was worried about my conditioning coming in. I’ve been out with injuries and stuff like that but after that first full match, I felt good. My lungs felt great; my body felt great. I felt good this weekend.”
Having lost in the semifinals as a freshman and junior, Rocha looked relaxed and in charge against Bolivar freshman Cooper Moore (36-5), ranked No. 3 at 138 according to Missouri Wrestling. Rocha took him down to his back late in the first period to take a 5-0 lead and led 9-1 before allowing a late takedown.
Afterward, Rocha calmly allowed his hand to be raised and then enjoyed a hug of clear relief with Burress.
“(In the semifinal), I think he was super calm and relaxed,” Burress said. “He wanted to get to the finals match and give himself a chance, and he did. I think it showed the maturity he’s developed with how he wrestled in the semifinals.”
In the final, Rocha matched up with Whitfield sophomore and defending 126 state champion Gavin Linsman (40-5). The first finals match for a Platte County wrestler since 2018 started with a solid shot from Rocha, only for Linsman to counter and earn the takedown and put him to his back for two near-fall points and an early 4-0 lead.
Rocha never recovered, and Linsman went on to an 11-2 major decision to earn his second straight state title. Despite the loss and given the difficult circumstances of this season, Rocha still understood the significance of reaching the state final and becoming the Pirates’ first four-time state medalist since Matthew Schmitt, Ethan Karsten and Johnny Blankenship all achieved the feat in 2016 (Phippen won four state medals from 2015-2018 but the first came as a freshman at Basehor-Linwood in Kansas).
In fact, Rocha became just the 11th in program history to win four state medals at Platte county, joining Jereme Blankenship, Jeremy Duncan, Jake Fisher, Zach Sherman, Chase Verdoorn, Tyler St. Louis, Collin Wittmeyer, Johnny Blankenship, Karsten and Schmitt.
“There were times this year where we wondered if we would get him back for the district tournament” Burress said. “We got him back, and no excuses. He went out there and got to the finals, and Whitfield kid wrestled well and we’re not taking anything away from him. Eli would tell you the same thing.”
“It was me getting over a speed bump that I’ve been stuck at,” said Rocha (16-4 with his first three losses all by injury default), who finished with a 131-18 high school record and will continue his wrestling career at Division I Northern Illinois. “The semis and quarters have been my kryptonite for a while, and I finally got past it. Unfortunately, the finals didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, but it’s on to better things.
“It was still one of those things I’m going to remember for a long time.”
Walls (36-7) also dealt with adversity in his career, qualifying for state as a freshman at 170 but missed his entire sophomore season to a shoulder injury suffered in football. He came back as a junior to reach the 195 semifinals and placing third for his first career state medal.
After the third-place match victory that included overcoming a late-match ankle injury, Walls didn’t shy away from saying he would come back to claim a state championship and did exactly that with a 4-0 showing over the three-day tournament.
“It feels amazing,” said Walls, who ironically didn’t win a tournament until the postseason but closed with seven straight wins after suffering a string of tight championship match losses in the regular season against elite competition. “I just feel like all the hard work I put in since I started in kindergarten has finally paid off. It just doesn’t get much better than this.”
Walls went to the second period in a first-round win over Washington senior Jose Avitia (28-14) and then started a tough run of the fourth-, fifth- and third-ranked wrestlers in the weight class. He appeared to have a defensive pin while leading Willard freshman Brady Griffin (41-10) in the quarterfinals but settled for a dominant 8-1 decision.
In the semifinals, Brandons junior Cade Grimm (37-9) trailed 2-1 in the second period after allowing a reversal but gaining an escape. He then put Walls in a body lock and appeared to have a point-scoring throw, only for Walls to “Matrix” out of it for a takedown that turned into a five-point move.
“I’m still trying to figure out how he got out of the body lock,” Burress said.
“I watched it over about 50 times when I got back to the hotel last night,” Walls said. “He body locked me. I’m not gonna lie. I was in the air, and I said, ‘Aw shit.’ I came down one foot, went to a knee, had a chin whip, rolled all the way through to his back, and that’s just the way it went. I didn’t have time to panic. I didn’t think either. It just happened.”
Walls went on to a 9-2 win by decision to reach the state finals but a showdown with No. 2-ranked Michael Friederich of Jefferson City didn’t materialize. Friederich injury defaulted out of the District 4 final against Walls and then Bolivar junior Blake Goodman (38-6) overcame a late deficit and pinned Friederich in their semifinal with 1-second left.
Late in the championship session Saturday night, Walls confidently took the mat and scored takedowns late in the first and second period, nearly turning Goodman both teams. The 4-0 lead into the third period held up with a reversal and another takedown accounting for his points while allowing just two escapes in the 8-2 decision.
Walls gave a big flex of his arms while pointing at the Platte County crowd before going over to lift Burress into the air in a bear hug to celebrate.
“I think he thought he was the favorite, and he just went out and proved that,” Burress said.
Platte County wouldn’t be done with state championships thanks to the dramatics of Fernandez’s run.
A state qualifier who went 1-2 as a freshman at 182, Fernandez (34-8) literally grew into his spot at 220 as the season progressed. He frustrated Carl Junction junior Cayden Bollinger (36-17) and Rockwood Summit senior Henry Armstrong (28-13) on the way to pins in the first two rounds while looking every bit like the wrestler who lost just twice in the final two months of the season.
“As the tournaments and weeks have gone by, I’ve gained confidence in myself,” Fernandez said.
That’s when the tight finishes started.
In the 220 semifinals, top-ranked McDonald County sophomore Samuel Murphy (47-2) awaited, and the pair exchanged escapes in a defensive matchup that went into overtime tied 1-1. Fernandez, ranked second, made his lone mistake during the 1-minute sudden victory period going deep out of bounds before pausing while Murphy stretched his stout frame out to trip the ankles and earn an apparent winning takedown.
However, Burress argued that since Fernandez’s feet were on the adjoining mat, where incidentally Murphy’s 285 teammate was wrestling, that the takedown couldn’t count. Eventually, the mat officials brought in tournament officials to discuss and eventually waved off the two points and restoring the tie. McDonald County’s coaches then engaged the officials before eventually explaining that tournament rules called for any match that went onto a neighboring mat where a match was active the action immediately stopped.
Fernandez paced around and bounced on his feet while waiting to see if his championship hopes would be restored.
“First of all, coach said it would be a miracle if they overturned that, so I was just happy they overturned that, and once they did, I knew I just had to keep the pace up and push him,” Fernandez said. “Definitely a feeling of relief knowing I did’t lose yet and I could still come back and win it like I did so very fortunate.”
With the match back at 1-1, Murphy and Fernandez went scoreless in the final 20 seconds of sudden victory, setting up the two 30-second tiebreaker periods. Fernandez chose the down position and scored a penalty point on Murphy’s second stall warning and then escaped to take a 3-1 lead.
Fernandez then rode Murphy out for the other 30 seconds, looking up to a sizable Platte County crowd that relocated to the front row of a nearly empty arena for the final match of the night to play out and flashing a youthful and knowing smile.
“It was encouraging for the overall team,” Burress said. “What Jake can do is go out and stay to a g game plan, make you battle and make you work extra hard, and Murphy got tired.”
That set up a District 4 championship rematch with Van Horn senior David Lewis (35-4), ranked No. 3 one spot behind Fernandez, and the second meeting ended with the same 2-1 score with a penalty point again involved. The two exchanged escapes in the first two periods with both picking up stall warnings in the process.
Late in the third period, Lewis appeared to be securing a winning takedown when the officials stopped the match with 8 seconds left. Instead of awarding two points to Lewis, Fernandez took a 2-1 lead when Lewis was called for pulling his headgear in what ended up the unorthodox winning moment.
Lewis gave up a stalling penalty point a week earlier as the decider at District 4.
“I never thought this would come true this year,” Fernandez said of his first state medal being a gold. “I would’ve just been lucky to place. Words can’t even describe how I’m feeling right now.”
Keuhn became a two-time medalist and closed what ended up being a three-year career with a second state medal at 170.
A qualifier at 152 as a freshman, Keuhn stepped away from the sport as a sophomore but returned a year ago and immediately rounded into form. He ended up with a quarterfinal loss at state and due to the COVID-related one-day format of the tournament couldn’t finish better than fifth at that point and that’s exactly where he ended up on the podium.
A District 4 runnerup, Keuhn (34-11) received an interesting draw this year and advanced to the quarterfinals with a first-period fall against Parkway West junior Mason Jensen in the opening round. That set up a meeting with Marshfield senior and District 3 No. 4 seed Dusty Stevens (46-9).
Keuhn took him straight to his back with a double-leg takedown early but could not secure the fall.
Still up 5-0, the result did not end up comfortable. Stevens put Keuhn to his back for two near-fall in the second period and held leads of 6-5 and then 8-7 with just 9 seconds left. Keuhn scored the tying escape essentially as time in regulation expired and then carried the momentum over, securing a 10-8 decision with a winning takedown just 4 seconds into sudden victory to guarantee a second straight state medal.
“In the end, when he knew he was in trouble, he listened to what we asked him to do,” Burress said. “He executed it. Guess what? Got out, got to overtime, got the takedown and became a two-time medalist down here.”
Keuhn matched up with Neosho’s Zar, all the way up from 145 a year ago, in the semifinals and went into the third period tied 1-1, giving up his only point after a pair of stalling calls in the second. However, Zar (50-4) came up with an escape and then a takedown and three near-fall points to earn a 7-1 decision and a repeat berth in the finals on the way to his first state title.
After a loss to Bolivar junior Trey Brewer (42-9) in a 4-2 decision, Keuhn closed his career with a dominant 7-1 win over Jefferson City senior Clayton Hurley (23-23) who battled all the way back from a first-round loss to reach the medal rounds.
“That was a deep bracket,” Burress said. “We got what we wanted out of Blaine.”
Platte County’s three semifinal wins briefly pushed the Pirates into fourth place as a team, and they went into the final day fifth but with only the four semifinalists still alive.
McDaniel made his state debut at 160, having finished as District 4 runnerup after two previous years of heartbreak. He lost a lead late as a sophomore when a win would have advanced him, and as a junior, he reached and lost the third-place match at 152.
In a normal year, McDaniel would have qualified for state, but the one-day format required the state to reduce the number of participants and only take the top three at each weight.
McDaniel (26-15) went into his first and only state appearance with an apparent path to the semifinals and a medal. In fact, he led Neosho junior Collyn Kivett (37-18) by a score of 2-1 after scoring a takedown in the second period. The advantage held until Kivett set up and executed a throw in the final minute of regulation and pinning McDaniel in 5:14.
Kivett went on to place fourth, while McDaniel recovered to pin North Point sophomore Brody Williams (22-20) in just 24 seconds.
However, the first-round loss upped the difficulty of the route to a state medal. McDaniel faced Festus freshman Peyton Shaver (44-8) in the consolation second round and took a 4-2 lead on a pair of takedowns. However, he granted Shaver an escape to start the third and then gave up the winning takedown with 52 seconds left, unable to escape and retie the score.
“It just didn’t happen for him, and he lost two close matches,” Burress said. “He hung in there with some good kids, and you know, I’m happy that Ben got here.”
Parsons made a hard-earned return to state after going 2-2 as a sophomore and nearly medaling with a losing record. In 2021, he went from District 8 champion to on the outside looking in at Sectional 4 in a difficult bracket.
In a senior year marked with right and left shoulder injuries, Parsons (17-12) wound up fourth at District 4 in a field that eventually produced the champion, runnerup and fourth-place finisher at state. He opened with Warrenton junior and District 2 champion Levi Penrod (30-7) and never found his footing, falling behind 8-0 and pinned with 6 seconds left in regulation.
Like McDaniel, Parsons came back with a pin in the consolation bracket, turning and sticking Rockwood Summit junior John Berry (24-14) late in the third period. He also encountered a freshman, Caleb Caldwell of Willard (46-4) coming off of a quarterfinal loss.
Down 3-1 late, Parsons hooked up a throw with 5 seconds left that seemingly put Caldwell to his back, but officials ruled time expired before the takedown could be completed, resulting in a tough loss.
“Five more seconds and he would’ve won that one,” Burress said. “And then who knows what would’ve happened in that next one. He’s always been a gamer. Happy to have him back, and good night, he can’t keep any shoulders in (socket). He couldn’t take any attacks. All he was was like a Greco-Roman wrestler out there trying to throw people to their back or trick them into something.
“There was no wiggle room in that bracket.”
Making his second straight state trip as a No. 2 seed, Hulett again made the quarterfinals with an impressive performance. He matched up right away with fourth-ranked Willard freshman Shawn Lang (41-7) and scored a takedown in the first period for what ended up the lone points in a 2-0 shutout decision.
Hulett (24-14) gave up the only takedown of the match to North Point freshman Kaden Purler (34-4) and ended up turned once for three near-fall points in a 5-1 loss by decision. Purler went on to finish as state runnerup while Hulett matched up in the consolation bracket with a familiar opponent.
Winnetonka senior John Nguyen grabbed the first two takedowns and held on late for a 7-5 decision over Hulett, who lost to him twice this season. Hulett won the first three matches between the two last year and held a 7-2 record the past two years against the three of the 106 medalists at state, having gone 3-0 overall with a win at state in 2021 and two this year vs. Hannibal sophomore Reign Creech (36-9, fourth), while Lang beat Nguyen for fifth.
“It just wasn’t his time in the match (with Nguyen); it’s a bad matchup for us,” Burress said. “Caden’s right there. He’ll keep developing; he’ll keep working because that’s who he is.”
All six teams that finished in front of Platte County brought more qualifiers.
Whitfield came with 13 wrestlers and ended up running away with a second straight Class 3 team state title with five individual state champions and 181 1/2 points, while Hillsboro went 10-for-10 in first round matches to take an early lead before fading to a distant second (125 points). Neosho continued its incredible run with a third-place showing despite having only Zar in the finals but with seven of 10 qualifiers finishing with medals.
Jefferson City, tied for fourth place in Class 4 last year before dropping down, won the District 4 title with 11 qualifiers and scored 102 points to fend off fifth-place Bolivar (100 1/2) and Farmington (92 1/2).
Platte County went into the finals with a chance to catch Farmington for sixth, but after senior Dayton Boyd won the 113 individual title for the Knights, the Pirates needed to sweep their finals and came up one short. The difference of one spot mattered little in an otherwise exceptional season.
“We needed a few more placers, but we didn’t get that,” Burress said. “I’m still proud of the effort and performances.”
All of the pieces appeared in place before the season, but Platte County dealt with Rocha’s two injury absences, while Parsons, McDaniel and first-year senior Trevor Scott (182) all battled nagging shoulder problems. In addition, the Pirates lost sophomore potential state qualifier Brody Lueders (126) to an appendectomy late in the season, and the incision didn’t heal up enough to allow him to return for the postseason.
Regardless of any minor disappointments, Platte County returned to an expected top 10 spot in the team standings behind a resurgent senior class that will be dearly missed in the years ahead.
“It’s meant a lot,” Fernandez said. “They’re real great guys. I’m gonna miss them next year a lot. I’m so happy for them, and I’m just very lucky to have competed with them.”