Park Hill battled down to the final second in a potential upset in Week 1 of 2015.
The resulting 14-7 loss to Blue Springs South should provide a good indicator of how well the Trojans could compete with their move to Class 6 — and simultaneously to the Suburban Conference’s largest tier — this season. No one else came that close to Blue Springs South, which went on to win the Class 6 state title.
Park Hill will seek to become the next champion in Missouri’s largest classification with its returning group full of stars.
Four of the six players to earn all-state honors return for the Trojans, including a trio of standout defensive players. A strong sophomore class stepped in for the 2015 season and helped fuel a quick rebuild after a run to the Class 5 semifinals the previous year.
Park Hill ended up 11-2 with a retooled roster, losing in the quarterfinals to eventual state champion Fort Osage.
The defense didn’t allow more than 14 points in a game until Week 7 of the regular season and returns its top two tacklers in senior linebacker Seven Wilson (school-record 165) and Division I-bound senior defensive end Chester Graves (122), who also recorded a team-high 13 sacks. In addition, junior defensive backs Liam Henry and Devin Haney combined for five interceptions.
Wilson, Graves and Haney earned all-state honors for their seasons.
About the only spot not dotted with returners will be the offensive line. Five seniors earned All-Suburban Conference Red Division honors to finish their career, while Landen Brown made the honorable mention list as a junior. He also added five sacks on the defensive line as a rotational player, now expected to be a key cog in his senior campaign.
The skill positions will be loaded with juniors.
Billy Maples took over at quarterback last season and developed into a consistent weapon, completing 65 percent of his passes for 2,231 yards and 19 touchdowns against just one interception. He mainly spread his 165 completions between four targets.
Kentrez Bell led the wide receivers with 69 catches, 850 yards and seven touchdowns in an all-state season. However, senior Quinton Harris was second with 48 catches and 766 yards, while juniors DJ Johnson (34 catches, 436 yards and five touchdowns) and Ronnie Bell (17 catches, 232 yards and four touchdowns) were productive contributors.
Park Hill’s running back duo from last year lost the leader but returns a capable junior ready to take more of the carries.
Zach Neal led the Trojans with 1,261 yards and 13 touchdowns but received nearly double the carries in his senior season compared to sophomore Dorian Clayton, who finished with 857 yards and 10 touchdowns. Clayton averaged 7.5 yards per carry on 114 attempts last season.
Park Hill even returns versatile senior Parker Sampson, who has played some quarterback the past two seasons in spot duty in addition to kicking and punting duties. He made the all-state team as a placekicker as a sophomore and junior, converting 46 of 47 extra points and 10 of 13 field goals in 2015.
The competition changes this year, although the rivalry matchup with Park Hill South will be played in Week 3. Park Hill’s schedule now includes perennial power Blue Springs, a matchup with Lawrence Free State (Kan.) as part of the Sunflower-Suburban Challenge and the regular-season finale rematch with Blue Springs South.