KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Matt Suchanick’s read on the decisive play was to throw a deep pass down the right sideline — basically an all-or-nothing chance to effectively end the game.
Capping off a career night, Suchanick faded back and lofted a pass toward senior wide receiver Nathan Sharp, who had sprinted past his defender. Sharp gracefully ran underneath the pass, made the catch and slid inside the pylon for an exclamation touchdown accounting for the final points in the Panthers’ 31-19 win over Platte County on Friday, September 6 at Park Hill District Stadium.
Suchanick threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, leading Park Hill South to 28 unanswered points to shock state-ranked Platte County. After kneeling out the final seconds, he and his teammates exited Preston Field through a boisterous student section fully appreciative of the second-half performance from the home team with no play bigger than the final touchdown.
“I saw man coverage on Sharp, and I knew I was going to hit him. It was perfect timing,” said Suchanick, who threw for 240 yards and ran for 91 more. “It felt good right off the hand, though, so I just trusted my guy and he got the job done.”
Platte County (1-1) scored on first three possessions to take a 19-3 lead with 7 minutes, 55 seconds left in the second quarter but didn’t score again. The Pirates had won the last three matchups between the two teams but allowed this one to slip away with Park Hill South beating them for the first time since 2009.
Now, Platte County looks to end a lengthy losing streak to one of its chief rivals under unusual circumstances.
Generally a highly anticipated matchup of top-10 programs in recent years, both Platte County and Kearney will enter Pirate Stadium this Friday off of losses to Class 5 opponents. While Platte County struggled against Park Hill South, Kearney (1-1) gave up 33 unanswered points in the second half of a 52-19 loss to Class 5-No. 3 ranked Staley (2-0) last week.
Kearney has made the rivalry with Platte County completely one-sided since 2008. The Bulldogs have won eight straight and are 13-1 in the last 14 meetings. They have been victorious all four meetings since the official establishment of the Highway 92 Showdown, which comes complete with a traveling trophy that has not traveled west to Platte City since its inception prior to the 2014 game.
Kearney comes in at No. 7 in the most recent Class 4 media poll, while Platte County dropped from No. 4 to No. 8 with the loss, meaning the loser of this one likely drops out of the top 10 with a 1-2 record to start the season.
“Kearney’s a team that’s had our number for several years in a row, and there’s a little bit of added pressure in that sense,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “I want to see them come out and play confident. I want to see them come out and play to the best of their ability. Whatever happens after that is easy to accept.”
While Platte County stumbled, Park Hill South (1-1) received the positive jolt needed after losing 35-0 to Raymore-Peculiar in its season opener. The Panthers even received two votes in the most recent Class 5 media poll ahead of this week’s home game against winless Suburban Conference Red Division foe St. Joseph Central (0-2).
Suchanick delivered the first win for new head coach Alan Wilmes in dramatic fashion and gave the program its biggest win since capturing a Class 5 district title in 2016. Suchanick was forced into a starting role at quarterback in 2017 as a sophomore and then missed half of 2018 after suffering an injury Week 1.
The gutsy four-touchdown performance was a reward for Suchanick’s perseverance. He finished 16 of 27 passing with no interceptions and ran 12 times for his 91 yards, often escaping out of pressure to avoid sacks and creating meaningful chunks of yards.
“(Suchanick) is No. 1 a great kid, which allows him to be a great player, a great leader and a warrior,” Wilmes said. “He just did what his coaches asked him to do, made some plays when he needed to, and it’s been a long time coming for him. I’m super proud of him because he’s had some tough moments in his career and games that weren’t so good, but he’s believed every step of the way and he’s come out and really led our team. That showed tonight.”
Platte County’s offense — ripe with new faces at the skill spots — was productive overall. Chris Ruhnke, a junior in his second start at quarterback, went 19 of 38 for 271 yards and two touchdowns with junior wide receivers Dayton Mitchell (seven catches, 87 yards) and Colby Rollins (five catches, 81 yards) his top targets. In addition, Pirates senior Trey Phan continued to fill in at running back for injured junior Cayden Davis, and the small-statured speedster ran 19 times for 53 yards and had two total touchdowns.
However, most of the yardage came in the first half with Platte County building a lead that held until the first play of the fourth quarter.
The game’s lone turnover gave Park Hill South the opening needed. An errant snap on a second down play for Platte County late in the third quarter resulted in a 23-yard loss and a fumble recovery for Panthers senior linebacker Tyler Duncan at the Pirates’ 9. Two snaps later, Suchanick hit Sharp (three catches, 56 yards) on his back shoulder at the right pylon for a 9-yard touchdown.
Park Hill South suddenly led 24-19 with 11:52 left, and Platte County didn’t gain a first down on either of its next two possessions with a chance to take the lead back.
“This didn’t happen over night,” Wilmes said. “The second half is how we looked all summer. Last week was a hiccup, but it was a learning hiccup. Our kids just decided to believe, and we told them they were in it no matter what the score said.”
“We believed that we could play with these guys, and that’s a great team and a great program, obviously.”
Park Hill South closed the door on its final full possession, slowly driving to Platte County’s 27. After a third down stop, Utz elected to accept a holding penalty to bypass a potential fourth and 3 and set up a third and 16 for the Panthers.
After the game, Wilmes said with a laugh that he would’ve gone for it on a fourth-down scenario, but moved back on third down, no choice was needed. Instead, he allowed Suchanick to go deep with his coach noting that even an interception would have been as good as a punt under that scenario.
The result was the 40-yard touchdown connection between Suchanick and Sharp to make it a two-score game with only 2:31 remaining.
“We were still attacking. Even with the lead, we want to keep playing. We don’t want to be a team or program that plays not to lose,” Wilmes said. “That doesn’t always end up good, but we believe in our kids to have fun and attack the day and attack each play. We try to keep them focused, not to get too high or too low — stay on the rollercoaster, as we call it, and ride the ride.”
“I think that was just smart football.”
Park Hill South started and finished strong. Still without injured senior tight end/defensive lineman Brock Ivy and coming off a shutout loss in Week 1, the Panthers took the opening kickoff and drove down for their first points of the season. Suchanick keyed the drive with a fourth-and-1 keeper, racing 46 yards down the right sideline and going out of bounds on a pushout from Platte County senior safety Trent Rueckert.
Disappointingly, Park Hill South settled for a 20-yard field goal from senior Michael Verhoeven to go up 3-0.
Faced with the first deficit of the season, Platte County responded with three touchdowns on its next three drives. A 40-yard completion from Ruhnke to senior Hunter Clarkson — the second long connection between the two in as many weeks — put the Pirates at the 1 on their first possession, and Phan plunged into the end zone on the next play to make it 7-3.
A shanked 12-yard punt after a three-and-out gave Platte County a short field for its second possession, and the Pirates capitalized on a 19-yard swing pass from Ruhnke to Phan, who rumbled into the end zone to make it 13-3. He has two touchdowns in each of his first two games — the first four scores of his career — since replacing Davis (ankle) in the second quarter of the 38-15 season-opening win over Oak Park.
Platte County’s third drive ended with a 41-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Rollins behind the defense. He dragged a defender over the goal line after having to slow up to catch the pass.
Seemingly the only concerns for Platte County at that point were a dropped two-point pass after the second touchdown and a botched extra point try after the third score that left the lead at 19-3.
“The first two quarters were great,” Utz said. “Chris looked as sharp as I’ve ever seen him, and people were making plays. I’ll give Park Hill South credit. They had an opportunity to quit, and they didn’t do it. They kept playing. Any time you give a team a little bit of a crack with some momentum, especially in a situation where they’re coming from behind but not too far behind, that’s a dangerous team.”
The momentum started to fade with penalties and mistakes.
Two costly and untimely flags, including a roughing the passer that negated a fourth down stop, on Platte County assisted Park Hill South on its first touchdown drive late in the second quarter. The Panthers marched 76 yards, and Suchanick escaped pressure on a second-and-goal from the 11 to push past two defenders and into the end zone to make it 19-10 with 3:55 left before halftime.
Platte County came right back, but intentional grounding and holding penalties stalled the drive. The Pirates then took the opening kickoff out of halftime and went three and out but missed an apparent chance to capitalize on a miscue when the officials ruled that Sharp caught the ensuing punt with his knee on the ground rather than calling an immediately loose ball a fumble recovered by the Pirates near midfield.
“You can’t really blame the outcome (on the miscues and near misses). We just grinded and that’s how we won,” Suchanick said.
As the offense faded, Platte County’s experienced defense tried to compensate.
Rueckert (eight tackles) and senior linebacker Gabe Harmon (six tackles) and sophomore linebacker Trevor Scott (five tackles) helped limit Park Hill South running backs Joe Inzenga and Laron Mitchell to just 28 combined yards on 24 carries. The Pirates’ defensive line consistently pressured Suchanick with senior defensive ends Garret Watson and James Gladden recording seven tackles apiece, and senior Kevin Fagan and junior Forrest Boynton collecting a sack apiece.
Park Hill South eventually managed to outgain the Pirates 359 to 322 with help from 20 first downs.
“Me and my guys just grinded all summer. We knew we could do this and believed in each other, and that’s what happened,” Suchanick said. “We were just positive all throughout the game. We knew we were driving on them, and we just couldn’t finish. We said we were going to finish and make plays, and that’s what happened.”
Suchanick found ways to account for the majority of the big plays in the run and pass game, and the persistence paid off when he hit junior wide receiver Gaige Warren (team-highs of nine catches and 73 yards) down the seam for a 73-yard touchdown that cut Platte County’s lead to 19-17 with 3:51 left in the third quarter. Moments later, the Pirates had their best scoring opportunity of the second half when senior Grant Allen pulled a 48-yard field goal try just wide to the right.
Park Hill South needed just one more big break, coming by way of the errant snap, to help complete the comeback. The Panthers’ defense continued to hold with consistent tackling from senior linebacker Cameron Gillaspie (11 tackles), edge pressure from senior linebacker Mike Suchanick (team-high 13 tackles) and up front push from junior defensive end RJ Mitchell (two sacks).
“You could tell in that third quarter when we had that drought, you could just tell that it was kind of slipping away, and that’s just a sick feeling,” Utz said.
Platte County’s last regular season loss came in Week 3 of 2018 — to who else, but Kearney — and the Pirates ran off eight straight wins from there to reach the Class 4 District 8 championship game for a fourth straight season.
The potential repeat path starts with hosting Kearney in the Suburban Conference Blue Division opener. The six-team league currently features four teams ranked in the top 10 of the Class 4 media poll — No. 6 Smithville (2-0), No. 7 Kearney, No. 8 Platte County and No. 10 Grain Valley (2-0). The Pirates play all three of the other ranked teams during the next four weeks.
Not only does Platte County want to end a lengthy losing streak to perhaps its biggest rival but also wants to avoid negative momentum during this tough stretch for a team young in key spots.
“We hope (we can run off another win streak),” Utz said. “You win and you celebrate it; if you lose, you have to own it as well. You don’t just get to do it one way. We’ll learn from (the loss to Park Hill South), regroup from it. We definitely have some mistakes; we’ve got to get better, and it’s the coaches’ job to get them ready to play.”