Chester Graves managed to keep his decision quiet until the very end.
In a lengthy recruiting process that lasted years, Park Hill’s star defensive end/linebacker waited until a signing ceremony at 4:15 p.m. on national signing day to make his Division I destination known. He took off his bulky letterman’s jacket to reveal an Ole Miss T-shirt complete with his customary “4” in red underneath the cursive script.
Graves visited the campus in Oxford, Miss. over the weekend, helping make his choice official. Park Hill coach Josh Hood said he received dozens of calls Wednesday, Feb. 1 prior to the announcement and joked that Graves might need a new phone due to all of the questions he received, unable to ever take a break from the recruiting process.
“I didn’t have to (get away from it). I tried, and I failed completely,” said Graves, a four-year starter and three-time Missouri media and Missouri Football Coaches Association pick at Park Hill. “But this process is really enjoyable, and everybody doesn’t get this to come out here and do this and sign on national signing day so it means a lot and it feels really good.”
Graves and linebacker Seven Wilson gave Park Hill a pair of Division I-bound products in a six-player signing class that also included one of the most prolific kickers in state history, a quietly productive receiver, a dual threat and celebrated holder, and a defensive back who played his final season through a significant injury.
Dozens gathered for Wednesday’s ceremony with Graves the obvious centerpiece.
Long considered a top college prospect out of Missouri in the 2017 class, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive star shifted to a more versatile role as a senior after starring at defensive end for three years. The Buck Buchanan Award winner as the best lineman or linebacker at a big school in the Kansas City metro area recorded 126 tackles (25 for loss) as more of a linebacker with his sack total going down from 15 as a sophomore to 13 as a junior to six this year.
In addition, Graves had three forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered and two blocked kicks this season, even returning a few kickoffs to display his unusual versatility for a player of his size. He was considered a four-star recruit from most services and fielded offers from a variety of schools after bursting onto the national scene as a sophomore.
“Last but not least please Welcome to the family (Chester Graves)!” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze after Graves’ late letter completed the SEC school’s signing day.
Graves recorded more than 100 tackles in each of his final three seasons at Park Hill and was a three-time all-state pick, earning MFCA defensive player of the year honors as a junior in Class 5 and in Class 6 as a senior. He helped Park Hill to the Class 5 semifinals in 2014 and the quarterfinals in 2015 before the Trojans moved up and went 6-4 in a successful but difficult 2016 transition.
In Hood’s remarks at the ceremony, he noted this senior class was his first that he had all four years as a head coach. Graves played as big a role as anyone in the Trojans’ recent success.
“There’s nothing really to do but get in the weight room, get ready and be better than last time,” Graves said.
Wilson served as the steady, if not occasionally overlooked, defensive standout next to Graves the past two seasons.
An all-state selection for a second straight year (once in Class 5, once in Class 6), Wilson sought out a Division I offer and eventually landed at South Dakota State — an FCS program in Brookings, S.D. The 6-foot, 215-pound linebacker led the Trojans in tackles for a second straight season (136 this year) to go with team-highs in tackles for loss (26) and sacks (eight).
Wilson joined Graves on the All-Simone Team, which honors the top players in the Kansas City Metro area, but he struggled to find big-time college offers. He set a school record as a junior with 165 tackles in 13 games to go with seven sacks.
In two seasons, Wilson also had three fumbles forced, three fumbles recovered and four passes defensed.
“I’m just blessed,” Wilson said. “I’m so happy that a Division I program finally took the chance on me, and I’m not going to upset them because I’m going to succeed at this level. And I’m going to make a name for myself, for sure.”
Like Graves, senior Parker Sampson earned all-state honors for three years as a four-year starter in a very different role for Park Hill.
As a senior, Sampson went 14 for 19 on field goals with a career-long of 52 while making 30 of 32 extra points, scoring an average of 7.2 points per game. He finished with 244 career points as a kicker with 32 of 42 accuracy on field goals and 92.5 percent made extra point attempts (148 of 160).
Sampson’s 244 kicking points are 12 more than previous state record holder Nick Jaros of Platte County, while his 32 field goals might also be a state record with the most recent listed mark just 21 along with his career kickoffs total of 255 (previous mark of 226).
In addition to kicking duties, Sampson was widely viewed as one of the best punters in the state, and he also threw 31 passes in his career while filling in at quarterback, completing 21 of 30 attempts for 261 yards and two touchdowns.
Sampson, who made some of the biggest kicks in program history during Park Hill’s 2014 playoff run, chose Northwest Missouri State, notating that the run of team success with the Trojans contributed to his decision. He also had opportunities to walk on at Division I schools and compete for a job, but the six-time national champion Bearcats want him to be the kicker for the next four years.
“That’s huge for me,” Sampson said. “I’ll be honest, football wasn’t very fun (as a freshman), but when you start to be on a winning team and understand how important that is — to be successful with your team and your brothers — I saw Northwest Missouri State as a place where I can go and do that same thing.”
Jokingly and accurately referred to as Sampson’s standout holder, Park Hill senior Zach Suppes chose Northwest’s main rival. He signed with Missouri Western this week and will again have to find out his role.
In addition to special teams duties, Suppes finished his career with 104 tackles — a career-high 59 as a senior — at linebacker. He also filled in at running back early in his senior season with junior Dorian Clayton out with injury.
Suppes totaled 276 rushing yards and two touchdowns, which included a 100-yard performance against Class 6 state runner-up Blue Springs.
Like Suppes an honorable mention All-Suburban Conference Gold Division pick, Park Hill wide receiver Quinton Harris will also move on to an MIAA school. He led a deep corps of receivers in receptions (60), yards (829) and touchdowns (seven) this past season.
Harris goes on to Washburn joining brother Kenyatte Harris and former teammate Matt Harris — no relation — on the Ichabods roster. All three played for Park Hill.
“It made me very comfortable with my choice,” Quinton Harris said. “It made it very easy.”
Brent Woods, a steady member of Park Hill’s defensive backfield, signed with MIAA powerhouse Grandview (Iowa).
A 5-8, three-year starter, Woods finished his career with 129 tackles (career-high 47 as a senior), three sacks and 16 passes defensed as a safety. Hood said that Woods played most of the season with a separated shoulder but still managed seven passes defensed in nine games.
Woods also earned honorable mention All-Gold Division honors.