KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Park Hill South took the next step in proving legitimacy.
Off to the best start to a season in more than a decade, the Panthers earned a state ranking and the right to one of the top spots in the Class 5 District 8 standings. They were still missing the signature win, having taken care of teams they were supposed to beat in coach Mike Sharp’s second season.
A battle of top-10 teams on homecoming provided the perfect opportunity to make a statement.
Liberty North scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions in the second half to briefly give the Eagles their first and only lead. Park Hill South finally answered with its only touchdown, and Jake Karns’ late interception sealed a 15-14 win for the Panthers, who moved up from No. 9 in the Class 5 Missouri media poll to No. 6 this week after beating No. 10 Liberty North.
“It’s awesome but it’s not me,” Sharp said. “It’s our coaching staff, and it’s our kids. It’s not anything I’ve done or anything else, but it’s just a great group of men that we have for coaches and our kids. We love those guys and we’d run through a wall for them.”
Park Hill South (5-1) needs just one more win to assure an above .500 record after going 2-8 a year ago in Sharp’s first season.
The lone stumble came in Week 3 against rival Park Hill when the Panthers went for a two-point conversion late and came up short, losing 24-23. They’ve won three straight since then, including the signature victory of Sharp’s tenure last week.
Down 14-9, Park Hill South’s final drive ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Zach Suchanick to running back Caeden Bowen with 2 minutes, 42 seconds left. The rollout pass accounted for the last of the Panthers’ 190 offensive yards in a difficult day for the offense.
Liberty North (2-4), which controlled much of the second half, mustered one final drive, but the third comeback attempt of the half ended on Karns’ pick.
“We needed to put the nail in the coffin and make them fold a little bit, and we did that and I felt like our defense played really well,” Park Hill South senior defensive back/wide receiver Jake Springer said. “I’m proud of my guys that we pulled it out and that we can put up a win like that.”
Park Hill South picked up the win but played without senior Dillon Thomas, the Panthers’ other senior defensive back/wide receiver slated to play Division I next year. He came up injured in the first half of a Week 4 win against St. Joseph Central, and has now missed 2½ games.
Up against a tough defense, Park Hill South settled for a 20-yard field goal from kicker Stephen Personelli near the end of the first quarter, points that accounted for a 3-0 lead going into halftime.
However, Liberty North didn’t score until after Personelli’s second made kick — a 44-yarder early in the third quarter. The Eagles then answered in a quick salvo of points from both teams.
First, running back Jon Redmond busted the game’s biggest play, a 70-yard touchdown run to put Liberty North up 7-6 for the Eagles’ first lead. Park Hill South drove right back, and Personelli’s 39-yard field goal gave the Panthers a two-point advantage, which would last only a minute.
Liberty North quarterback Taylor Bayton capped the Eagle’s second straight touchdown drive with a 33-yard scramble. Park Hill South’s defense then held the score at 14-9 and waited for the offense to find the end zone.
Connor Campbell (10 tackles) and Payton Ireland (eight tackles) led the defense with Springer adding six stops in another spirited effort. The Panthers have allowed 14 or fewer points in four of six games, including a season-opening shutout of Winnetonka.
“It’s a great win for our program to be able to beat a great opponent like Liberty North on our homecoming game,” Sharp said. “My hat is off to our defense; they did a great job tonight.”
Park Hill South sits No. 2 in the five-team District 8 standings, percentage points behind undefeated Williams Chrisman for the top spot. The Bears jumped into the Missouri media Class 5 poll at No. 5 in front of Park Hill South after an upset of previously unbeaten Staley.
For now, the postseason chase can wait for Park Hill South, which still has a shot at the Suburban Conference Red Division title. The Panthers have a 3-0 record in league play — one of only two unbeatens out of six teams after handing Liberty North its second Red Division loss.
The two teams still in the hunt meet this week on Friday, Sept. 30 with Park Hill South traveling to Liberty (5-1), coming off of a nonconference loss to Platte County last week. The winner all but assures the outright title in what’s become a two-team chase.
“It’s big time for us,” Springer said of the win over Liberty North. “That really sets us up for conference. Next week we’re going to prepare really well for Liberty and look to get that win and then it’s on from there.”
Springer collected six tackles against Liberty North and added a team-high four catches for 32 yards. Sam Beuerlein, playing more in Thomas’ absence, led Park Hill South with six receptions for 29 yards, while Bowen managed 47 yards rushing in addition to his lone reception for the Panthers’ only touchdown.
Suchanick threw for 98 yards but completed 13 of 18 attempts.