Special to The Citizen
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Park Hill came into the rivalry game off a stinging loss the previous week. Park Hill South envisioned extending its winning streak and surpassing last year’s win total early in the season.
The two schools share one football field — the high schools separated by just seven miles. Park Hill South coach Mike Sharp previously spent 10 years on the sidelines with the rival Trojans. One student in the Panthers cheering section Friday, Sept. 2 at Park Hill District Stadium wore a shirt that read, “Better dead than red.”
The actual game didn’t disappoint in Park Hill’s 24-23 victory that came down to a 2-point conversion try with 6 seconds left — the most competitive in the series since Park Hill South held on for a 13-7 victory in 2011.
“It didn’t take me long once I got here to realize how big this game is,” Park Hill coach Josh Hood said. “I felt like the community was out in force tonight.”
Park Hill entered with blowout wins over its chief rival the previous two years when the teams still shared a Suburban Conference division and district placement.
The schedule-makers ensured the two would play again even with the Trojans going up to Class 6 this season and into the Gold Division, where they dropped to 1-1 with a loss at Lee’s Summit last week. The matchup came at a pivotal point for both programs with Park Hill South looking to rebuild in Sharp’s second season after going 2-8 in 2015.
Park Hill didn’t take the lead back until junior quarterback Billy Maples threw his only touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Parker Sampson later added a field goal to cap 17 unanswered points for the Trojans, leaving them with a 24-17 lead.
Park Hill South mounted one final drive in the closing moments.
Facing a fourth and goal from the 2 with just 9 seconds left, Panthers quarterback Zach Suchanick plowed in leaving Sharp with a seemingly difficult decision. He opted to go for two and the win with 6 seconds to go, and Park Hill’s Chester Graves stoned Suchanick on a speed option play to preserve the lead and the win.
Suchanick finished with 10 yards rushing and completed just 4 of 16 passes for 73 yards.
“We were planning on doing it the whole time; it’s what the guys wanted to do,” Sharp said.
Park Hill (2-1) looked to take control early with a 1-yard touchdown run from Zach Suppes.
Trailing 7-3 entering the second quarter, Park Hill South mounted its best drive of the first half, and running back Caeden Bowen, a transfer from Park Hill, broke off a 26-yard run — his longest of the game. Suchanick then capped the drive with a 28-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Dillon Thomas, headed to Division I Northern Illinois.
Thomas caught three passes for 72 yards, including the scoring strike to put the Panthers ahead for the first time at 10-7.
“Dillon Thomas is a great player and had a great night,” Hood said.
Park Hill appeared ready to tie the score on the leg of Sampson, an all-state kicker each of the past two seasons.
In a short drive lasting 36 seconds, the Trojans moved into range and set up for a 49-yard try to end the half. Park Hill South blocked the attempt, and senior linebacker Payton Ireland returned the loose ball 66 yards for a touchdown, giving the Panthers an unexpected 17-7 advantage at the break.
Park Hill took the opening kick of the third quarter and immediately went three-and-out again.
“Our defense played well,” Sharp said. “Our defensive coordinator has a great philosophy of make them snap it again, and even when they made big plays, we made them snap it again.”
Park Hill South couldn’t add to its lead, punted after a three-and-out and then avoided a potential problem.
Park Hill wide receiver Ronnie Bell returned the punt 60 yards but fumbled the ball right back to the Panthers. Park Hill’s defense — led by Graves and senior linebacker Seven Wilson — responded by forcing another three-and-out to take the ball back.
“Our defense is awesome, and we have some really great players,” Wilson said.
Continuing to receive playing time on offense, Wilson made sure the stop counted.
Park Hill’s long drive went inside Park Hill South’s 10 late in the third quarter when Hood made his own big decision. Down by 10, the Trojans coach opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1, and Wilson rewarded him by plowing into the end zone for the score on his only carry of the game.
Suppes led the Trojans with 40 yards on the ground.
Park Hill went to the air to make it scores on back-to-back drives. Maples, who finished with 152 yards on 16-for-25 passing, connected with wide receiver Quinton Harris for a juggling 22-yard touchdown to put the Trojans back up 21-17 with more than 10 minutes left.
“We were kind of stale there, and we were trying to fish our way out there in the second half,” Hood said. “But the kids stuck with and really fed off of the momentum.”
After Sampson’s field goal with 3:21 to play, Park Hill South mounted its second sustained drive of the game. The Panthers faced two different fourth downs on the final possession, and Thomas hauled in another big grab on a fourth and 9 to keep the march alive.
Suchanick’s touchdown plunge gave Park Hill South hope of its first win in the series since winning two back-to-back in 2013, but Thomas provided the biggest plays in the near-upset.
“I just want to say: Dillon Thomas is a helluva player,” Wilson said.
Park Hill now heads back into Gold Division play against Blue Springs, a top 10-ranked Class 6 team. After falling out of the Missouri media rankings following the Week 2 loss, the Trojans received fewer votes this week (three) than last week (six) heading into the matchup with No. 2 Blue Springs.
After starting 2-0 for the first time since 2005, Park Hill South starts Red Division play against St. Joseph Central on Friday, Sept. 9 in basically a fourth straight home game to start the season. Sharp told his players that all they need to worry about is winning this week and not dwelling on the disappointing finish against Park Hill.
Park Hill South’s votes in the Class 5 media poll increased after the loss from three after Week 2 to six following the loss to the Trojans.
“The season isn’t over; it’s only Week 3,” Sharp said.