Park Hill football's comeback comes up just short at Free State

Park Hill’s perfect season ended in a premier battle of top teams from Missouri and Kansas.

Penalties wiped out a pair of touchdowns in the first half, and the Trojans couldn’t quite overcome a 19-point halftime deficit against Lawrence Free State (Kan.) on Friday, Sept. 15 in Lawrence, Kan. The Firebirds held on for a 21-16 victory despite not scoring in the second half, improving their record to 3-0.

Free State entered ranked No. 2 in Kansas’ Class 6A, facing the toughest challenge in the early part of the schedule and moving up to No. 1 with the win.

Park Hill (4-1) fell from No. 1 in the Missouri Class 6 media poll to No. 3 behind CBC (4-1) and Eureka (5-0).  The task doesn’t ease for the Trojans, who welcome No. 6-ranked Lee’s Summit West (4-1) to Park Hill District Stadium on Friday, Sept. 22 for a key Suburban Conference Gold Division matchup.

So far, Lee’s Summit West’s lone loss was 19-6 to Blue Springs in Week 2. Park Hill defeated No. 5 ranked Blue Springs (3-2) by a score of 28-25 ahead of the game with Free State.

Averaging 44 points per game during a 4-0 start, Park Hill didn’t score on offense against Free State until the fourth quarter. A pair of touchdown passes from senior quarterback Billy Maples to senior Ronnie Bell (eight catches, 96 yards) helped close the gap to 21-16.

With the defense holding for the final two quarters, Park Hill twice held possession with a chance to take the lead, but the final drive ended with a turnover on downs on the Trojans’ own 35.

Bell’s day could’ve been much bigger if not for a pair of 60-plus-yard touchdowns called back in the first quarter.

Free State scored touchdowns on each of its first two drives to take a quick 14-0 lead, while Park Hill’s balanced offense couldn’t complete a scoring drive. Dorian Clayton, a senior running back, ran for 142 yards for the Trojans while Maples went 18-for-31 for 181 yards.

Park Hill did cut the lead to 14-2 when junior linebacker Cole Gonier tackled Free State running back Bo Miller in the end zone with 9 minutes, 46 seconds left in the first half. The Firebirds seemed to be taking that lead into halftime when Trojans linebacker Brighton Ramirez recorded a sack on a first down play inside of two minutes.

However, Free State’s Jax Dineen broke off a 32-yard run on the next play with 15 more added on a facemask penalty. The drive ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Jackson Preston to Jake Rittman with 9 seconds to go.

Free State wouldn’t score again, and Park Hill didn’t close the gap until early in the fourth quarter.

Maples’ first touchdown pass went for 29 yards to Bell, and a two-point conversion pass from Maples to junior Joe Webb made it 21-10. After a stop, the Trojans came right back with another touchdown pass from Maples to Bell — this one 8 yards — but the conversion failed, leaving them in need of another touchdown with 7:33 remaining.

Free State broke up a pass on the final play intended for Bell.

Haden Wallace led Park Hill’s defense with 12 tackles and a sack, while junior defensive back Kolby Heinerikson made 10 stops. The Trojans didn’t force any turnovers, while Maples threw an interception in the first half and lost a fumble after a long drive into Firebirds’ territory to start the third quarter.