Special to The Citizen
Following up a conference opponent with a district foe is never an easy way to start a new campaign — especially when that foe handed you two losses the prior season — but No. 8 Park Hill (2-0) rode the strength of three first half touchdowns to a 21-10 victory over Liberty (1-1) last Friday night at HyVee Field.
“We’ve talked quite a bit about new team, new faces and everything,” Trojans head coach Josh Hood said of his team’s approach. “Our big thing was we just wanted to ensure we were 2-0. I guess you can’t worry about style points when you play a schedule like we do, one of the toughest schedules in the state of Missouri.”
After the Trojans’ initial drive stalled out after three straight running plays, Liberty went on a 12-play, 42-yard drive that included a fourth down conversion and ended with a 22-yard field goal from Alek Rottjakob. Park Hill quickly seized the momentum, and the style points, however, and built a lead that proved to be insurmountable.
On third-and-12 from his own 28-yard line, junior quarterback Anthony Hall found fellow junior wide receiver Jaylin Noel streaking up the far hash for a 72-yard touchdown just 29 seconds after the Blue Jays put the first points on the board.
“Our offensive coordinator and our quarterback saw they were in man, or zero, so as soon as we seen that they told me to run a fade and I went and got it,” Noel said. “Our quarterback threw a perfect ball.”
On the next Liberty drive, the defense got in on the action as seniors Johnny Wilson and James Gore, who finished with nine tackles and three sacks, met in the backfield to bring down Blue Jays’ quarterback Luke Smith for a sack. Not to be outdone, senior Darion Neal provided a highlight play on special teams blocking the ensuing punt to set the Trojans up at the Liberty 17-yard line.
“I thought the special teams played well in the first half and kind of set the tone in a few areas,” Hood said. “Our defense really played well. We took away some of the big plays, which allowed us the chance to get in the backfield and make some plays on their quarterback.”
Three plays later senior running back Eric Carey, who ran for 42 yards on 12 carries, dove into the end zone from 4 yards out to stretch Park Hill’s lead to 14-3 with just 24 seconds left in the first quarter.
Just before halftime, following a pair of punts from each team and a turnover on downs from the Blue Jays, Hall and Noel hooked up again, this time on a 37-yard catch and run to give the Trojans a 21-3 lead heading into the locker room.
While the offense fizzled out in the second half, stringing a missed field goal together with six more drives that ended without points: two punts, two turnovers on downs and two interceptions – collected by Liberty’s Ryan Olivas and Karrell Simpson.
“I feel like we just didn’t execute enough (in the second half),” said Noel, who hauled in five passes for 131 yards and the two scores. “I feel like if we would have executed better we could have just kept rolling and we could have finished the game even better.”
The defense, however, continued to flex its muscles in forcing four second-half turnovers of its own. First a fumble recovery by senior Javion Gathrite led to a short field and the missed field goal then strewn among three punts and a turnover on downs by the Blue Jays were a strip sack by junior linebacker Chris Bizzle, who finished with eight tackles, and an interception by junior cornerback Anthony Reyes.
“We really stressed to our guys all week that they’re a big-play offense,” Hood said. “They like to run the football, but if we can take away the big plays we’ll have a lot of success. I felt like we did that for most of the game.”
After Simpson’s interception with 2:53 to play, the Blue Jays showed signs of life going on a nine-play, 55-yard drive, which was aided by a pair of personal foul penalties on the Trojans, that ended with quarterback Luke Smith hitting wide receiver Caleb Cahill for an 11-yard touchdown.
“We just can’t have dumb penalties,” Hood said. “We had probably three 15-yard penalties (in the game) that allowed them first downs. A good team like Liberty, you don’t have to give them anything.”
Liberty made it even more interesting with just over a minute to play after Cahill recovered the ensuing onside kick. On the first play of the drive, though, Park Hill’s opportunistic defense came up with its fourth takeaway of the half as senior cornerback Antonio McCullough recovered a fumble forced by senior linebacker Mikey Miles to thwart any further comeback attempt.
“It feels real good,” Noel said of getting the win. “I feel like we improved from last year, but I felt like we could have finished in the second half.”
The Trojans don’t have long to clean up the second half issues, though, as they travel to face another Class 6 District 4 opponent, No. 9 Liberty North (2-0), at 7 p.m. Friday night at Liberty North High School. The Eagles are coming off a 49-3 victory over Truman (0-2) that saw them rack up 192 yards on the ground while quarterback Jake Van Dyne threw for three touchdowns.
“I know they’ve got a great quarterback and they’ve got some running backs they really like,” Hood said. “I hear they’re huge upfront. It’s going to be another stiff test for our defense. Offensively, we’ve got to execute and keep the ball in our hands.”
“I know they’re going to come out there and give us our best test we’ve seen all year. We’ll get ourselves cleaned up, get the dings worked out and see if we can come back and execute.”