Platte County seemed destined to face a new type of adversity until the football popped into the air for a few tantalizing seconds last Friday at Pirate Stadium.
Winnetonka had already squandered a two-touchdown advantage after losing Division I prospect and standout running back defensive back Marquise Doherty to an apparently serious shoulder injury. The Pirates comeback started on a deflected pass from quarterback Justin Mitchell that resulted in a nonsensical score for wide receiver TJ Guillory.
Then one play changed the course of the Suburban League Blue Division opener for both teams, sending Platte County to a 35-19 victory against the Griffins, who entered ranked No. 2 in the most recent Class 5 poll.
Trailing 14-12, Winnetonka attempted a jet sweep handoff out of the shotgun on a first-and-goal play from the Pirates’ 1 with just more than 6 minutes left in the first half. The ball sprang into the air and fell into the hands of Platte County junior outside linebacker Tyler Clemens, who immediately started a 99-yard sprint the other way for a touchdown with Griffins quarterback Julious Sabastiano giving up his pursuit near midfield.
Clemens’ dash ended up the middle score in 35 unanswered points for Class 4 Platte County in what turned into a memorable upset.
“I jumped the sweep. I was going to be in a good position to stop the run, but the ball just popped out, I grabbed it and ran,” said Clemens, who finished with a season-high six tackles and scored his second touchdown of the season. “It’s not that hard. You have all the pressure because it’s right at you, but you just catch it and go.”
The breaks have continued to go Platte County’s way during a 5-0 start – best for the program since going 6-0 in 2007, the Pirates’ final season in the Midland Empire Conference.
After the win against Winnetonka, Platte County closed to within a ½ point of Kearney in the Class 4 District 8 standings and moved from unranked to No. 8 in the most recent set Missouri media state poll. The Pirates now have an 11.2-point edge on the district’s third-place team – Smithville, which improved to 4-1 this week with a comeback win vs. St. Joseph Lafayette.
Platte County travels to face 3-2 Belton, which has won two straight against Grandview and Oak Park, with an extra shot of confidence after downing the Doherty-less Griffins.
“I hope it’s a minor injury,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “When a kid like that goes down for an offense – and a defense – it just completely changes what (they) have to do. Luckily, we were able to make a few plays while that transition was still going on, before they got straightened out.
“That’s the way it went. They’re a heck of a team and with him in the game, I’m sure it’s a different situation.”
Doherty ran for 13 yards on six attempts and caught one pass from Sabastiano on Winnetonka’s first two drives, which both ended in touchdowns. He also served as a constant source of attention, which helped Sabastiano throw a 24-yard touchdown pass to James Gillock and run another in from 11 yards out.
Both conversion attempts failed, leaving the Griffins with a 12-0 advantage — the biggest deficit this season for the Pirates.
Doherty didn’t play again, going to the locker room and later emerging in street clothes with a heavily wrapped left shoulder and that arm in a sling. By the time he made it back to the turf, Platte County held a lead, a quick surge that started immediately following Sabastiano’s touchdown run.
On the second play of that drive, a Winnetonka defender tipped Mitchell’s pass attempt and sent it caroming into Guillory’s arms behind the rest of the Griffins’ defense. He raced untouched for the first score. Mitchell’s second touchdown pass – a 29-yarder to senior Aliek Reed – on the Pirates’ third possession of the game gave them the lead for good.
“Definitely the ball was bouncing their way at the beginning of the game,” Clemens said, “but we dug down. Our coaches got us to stick through it, and we’re a fighting team. We get down early, we’re not going to quit on you, so we just came back, made a couple plays and kept grinding.”
Winnetonka’s next drive — a lengthy nine-play march — reached the 1 before the disastrous fumble-return sequence, which gave Platte County a 21-12 halftime lead.
Mitchell finished with a career-high 305 yards but did throw a pair of interceptions to Winnetonka’s Chase Williams in the second half to provide the Griffins with critical stops deep in their own territory and provide slight openings. They turned neither into points, and three plays following the first one, Platte County senior Tyler Cooper snared an errant pass from Sabastiano (160 yards rushing and two scores; 167 yards passing on 14-of-27 accuracy) and raced 22 yards for the Pirates’ second defensive score and a 28-12 lead.
Mitchell hit Reed for a 72-yard score early in the fourth quarter – their seventh touchdown connection of the season – and Guillory also turned in his best showing of the season with six catches for 125 yards.
“We just gained confidence the whole game,” said Platte County sophomore center Casey Jumps, one of four sophomores contributing on a line that played without starting sophomore guard Derek Kohler (head injury) against Winnetonka. “We’re definitely getting better, but we can always improve. We’re finally starting to get our feet under us as a line, and we’re starting to play as a team and be successful.”
Prior to the game, Platte County honored its six seniors – Reed, Cooper, defensive lineman Devin Perry, linebacker Topher Kilkenny, offensive tackle Drew Oberle and linebacker Spencer Anderson. That group will play its final regular-season home game on homecoming Oct. 10 against Grandview.
Before that, the Pirates face Belton and then Kearney on Oct. 3.
Following the win against Winnetonka, a group of the fans in Platte County’s student section began chanting, ‘We want Kearney,’ broken up with hearty claps. Some of the Pirates’ players heard and gave a bit of a nervous grimace. Platte County leads the all-time series with Kearney 23-13, but the Bulldogs have won eight of nine meetings since the Pirates joined the Suburban League in the 2008 season.