The thought certainly crossed Justin Mitchell’s mind.
After a season-ending injury suffered in practice, Platte County’s star senior quarterback wondered if he would return to the football field this season. He already made a commitment to play Division I baseball, and long-term health needed to be a consideration.
In the end, Mitchell couldn’t walk away, not with so many others needing him on the field to lead the Pirates’ offense.
“When it came down to it, I’ve been playing with these guys since fourth grade,” Mitchell said. “I kind of would’ve let them down if I quit our final year, and we think we have something special this year so why not?”
Mitchell’s return cemented Platte County as a contender again in the Suburban Conference Blue Division.
Already a two-year starter, the dynamic playmaker broke out as a sophomore and appeared poised to turn in an even better year as a junior. He put up 1,072 yards and 12 touchdowns passing and 322 yards and five touchdowns rushing during the Pirates’ 5-0 start, which culminated with a dominant showing in a blowout of Winnetonka.
The following week in practice, Mitchell broke his collarbone, setting off a series of position shifts that nearly torpedoed Platte County’s season.
“When Justin went down, we had to completely implode everything and start over,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “We don’t want that to happen, but I think as a staff we learned it’s a possibility to do so and the one thing we have to come to grips with is it takes some time to get back on track (if significant injuries happen).”
Lloyd Lockett, a standout cornerback, moved to quarterback for what ended up a seven-game stretch. The Pirates lost the first three of Lockett’s starts before winning three straight to reach the Class 4 District 8 championship game against Kearney, which scored a 43-3 win on the way to a state title.
Lockett and all-state linebacker Johnny Blankenship headed up a sizable senior class that experienced consistent success, going 8-4 last year despite the injuries, but couldn’t break through to beat Kearney in Blue Division or postseason play.
Mitchell heads up a large senior class that broke into the lineup as sophomores and have served as staples of the lineup the past two seasons. The biggest holes to fill this year will be in the receiver corps and in the front part of the defense.
Michael McNair, a senior running back, returns alongside Mitchell for a third season together. McNair had his best year last season finishing with 1,044 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing — both team-highs.
While McNair split time the last two years, junior Hunter Tongate will be the most likely to steal carries, but he could be a good candidate to fill the role Alex Minter did in 2015. TJ Guillory, a senior receiver, led the Pirates in catches each of the past two seasons, but Minter, Zach Hamilton and Zack Regan were next on that list last year and all graduated.
Tongate could function like Minter — playing a lot of slot receiver but occasionally shifting into the backfield. Senior Carter Nugent (seven catches) and 6-foot-4 sophomore Jon Watts (one catch) will also be expected to contribute on the offense. Mitchell’s struggled as a sophomore with turnovers (10 interceptions in a 9-3 season) and last season he battled staying in the pocket to find open receivers instead of bailing and improvising with his legs.
The line should be solid with senior all-state tackle Derek Kohler (a Missouri State commit) returning along with fellow seniors Casey Jumps, Austin Gammill and Chris Gianessi. Kohler, Jumps and Gammill will all be third-year starters.
“We all know from little league on up what we’re capable of doing,” Kohler said. “We’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and we know the expectations are high this year so we’re just going to do the best we can to meet those expectations.”
Kohler will see more snaps on the defensive line, as well with Utz looking to replace the entire starting unit. Michael Smith, a junior, could be a breakout candidate after posting 28 tackles and one sack at defensive end last year. Peyton Stoner, a sophomore, will also have a chance to work in the rotation after the Pirates lost Christian Grissom, Dane Rader, Conner Welch and Tyler Blankenship from last season.
That quartet combined for six of Platte County’s 10 sacks a year ago.
Dakota Schmidt, a junior outside linebacker, is the top returning tackler having posted 87 a year ago — behind only Blankenship’s 97 in an all-state season. Austin Shoemaker, a senior, has also worked his way in position to start along with Gavin Hardman, transferring back to Platte County from Lone Jack.
The defensive backfield should be a strength with senior Kevin Neal (five interceptions), junior safety Kobe Cummings (one interception, one fumble recovery, 83 tackles) and junior cornerback JP Post (two interceptions, team-high six passes defensed) all returning starters. Cade Goettling, a senior, could also resume a starting position after receiving a few chances in the secondary as a junior.
Despite last season’s injury woes and resulting shuffles, Utz plans to stick with the majority of players on only one side of the ball.