The ball glanced away but remained tantalizingly close to Aliek Reed’s outstretched fingertips. After the pass fell incomplete in the end zone, the Platte County senior wide receiver pulled himself into a sitting position, fellow senior Tyler Cooper unbuckled his chin strap nearby. A final Hail Mary attempt from sophomore quarterback Justin Mitchell, heaved into the direction of his two tallest targets, couldn’t save a charmed season, and Smithville escaped with a wild 44-38 win in a Class 4 District 8 semifinal played Oct. 31 at Pirate Stadium.
Platte County finished at 9-2 with a share of the Suburban League Blue Division title, but the careers for six seniors – Reed, Cooper, Drew Oberle, Devin Perry, Topher Kilkenny and Spencer Anderson – came to an end with a second straight loss to the Warriors in the postseason. After two successful comebacks, a third try came up agonizingly short after a final snap from Smithville’s 39-yard-line with 4.7 seconds left offered a final chance to save the season.
“As I watched that play, it seemed like my entire high school career flashed before my eyes,” said Cooper, who switched from quarterback to wide receiver and defensive end this season.
Smithville (9-2) advances to play Kearney in this week’s district final after senior running back Charlie Nihart scored the go-ahead touchdown with 37.4 seconds to play, capping off a career-high performance at 312 yards on 34 attempts with three scores.
Reed took the ensuing kickoff 40 yards to Smithville’s 42 after officials waved off an apparent penalty against the Pirates, who accrued a crucial 243 yards on returns overall, but the Warriors sacked Mitchell (11-for-30, 209 yards) on the next two plays to set up a dire scenario. He hit Cooper for 21 yards on the next play, and Platte County called a timeout with 4.7 seconds left to draw up the last pass play.
Mitchell stepped up and put the ball in the end zone, even clearing the first of five Smithville defenders in the area before the pass was batted away.
Platte County lost to Smithville in the first round of Class 4 District 8 last year, finishing 3-7. The Pirates rebounded this season with an infusion of sophomore talent to back up an unusually small senior class and won five straight to open the season, including upsets of Park Hill South and Winnetonka, before a blowout loss to Kearney which forced them to share the Blue Division crown in a three-way tie.
“I’m definitely glad that we got this far, and I think (the end) is going to hit me a lot more when I get home. This is just really hard,” said Kilkenny, who morphed into a standout performer at outside linebacker and led Platte County with 76 tackles and 20 tackles for a loss this season.
Platte County fell behind 14-0 after less than two minutes against Smithville and eventually battled all the way back from a 31-10 deficit the Warriors built up by early in the second quarter.
On the game’s opening snap, Reed fumbled on an end-around run, and Luke Sachs recovered for Smithville at the Pirates’ 15. Nihart scored on the very next play, and after a three-and-out for Platte County, he went in nearly untouched from 71 yards out to make it 14-0 Warriors with 10:03 still left in the opening quarter.
In the first 4½ minutes of play, the teams combined for three touchdowns, two fumbles and an interception.
Smithville’s Quintin Mueller returned a punt 54 yards for a score to extend the lead to 31-10 early in the second quarter, but the Pirates dominated the half’s remainder with a rushing attack that ended up totaling 231 yards despite playing without Oberle, a left tackle transfer from Texas and the Pirates’ most consistent offensive lineman. They went 69 yards on nine plays to close within two scores on running back Michael McNair’s 4-yard run and then marched 88 yards in the final 2:27 of the second quarter to make it 31-24 at halftime on the first of running back Alex Minter’s two short scoring plunges.
McNair, who finished with 65 yards rushing, added his second rushing touchdown on Platte County’s first possession of the second half to tie the score at 31. That score seemingly gave the Pirates the momentum, a drive junior linebacker Tyler Clemens set up with an interception.
“That is a lot of effort and takes a lot,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “It’s not only a physical thing but it’s mental as well — tons of character from them.”
The win finally looked within reach for Platte County.
Smithville took a 38-31 lead early in the fourth quarter on quarterback Mitchell Orr’s 51-yard rushing score on a misdirection bootleg down the visitor’s sideline. The Pirates answered right back with Minter (67 yards) scoring his second touchdown for their final points to create the final tie at 38.
Platte County missed on three drives with a chance to take the lead in the second half, including a drive midway through the third quarter that breeched Smithville’s 20 after Mitchell hit Reed on a 41-yard fake punt play deep in the Pirates’ own territory. Platte County never led and ultimately couldn’t hold Nihart out on the Warriors’ final drive.
“I think if we just get the lead, we’re in good shape, and we just never had that opportunity — or we did and just didn’t take advantage of it,” Utz said. “The expectations for us were very down, very low (this year), and I thought the kids worked very hard and met some goals that a lot of people didn’t think were attainable, so that’s something to be extremely proud of.”