NORTH KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For most of Friday night, Park Hill South played careless-free football.
Ball security and controlling possession were clearly points of emphasis for the upset-minded Panthers during a Class 5 District 8 semifinal contest against one-loss North Kansas City on Nov. 2.
For all but three minutes of the game, the Panthers successfully controlled the clock and didn’t turn it over. But those few minutes happened to be the most crucial and final moments of the game.
Park Hill South coughed up a fumble and threw an interception, and North Kansas City capitalized on the takeaways with a pair of late touchdowns as the second-seeded Hornets earned a 28-17 victory over the third-seeded Panthers.
“It was a great football game,” Park Hill South coach Mike Sharp said. “It was a lot of fun, but unfortunately someone there had to be a loser. If we eliminate probably three plays, we win substantially. We didn’t have the ability to finish when we had a chance to and you can’t give a guy like (Clyde) Price too many times before he hurts you.”
The Panthers, who ends the season 2-8, held on to a 17-14 lead with three minutes and some change remaining. Then, junior quarterback Matt Suchanick was striped by Bayad Hussain, and nearly two minutes later Suchanick was picked off by Romar Vibar. Both turnovers set up long touchdown runs by Clyde Price and Brandon Hall, respectively, in the final two minutes of the contest.
“It was huge,” North Kansas City coach Leon Douglas said of the first turnover. “We had to do something. That’s how we practice. We were able to make a play.”
Hall, a junior, totaled three touchdowns on four carries for 173 yards. Price, a senior standout running back, rushed for 155 yards on 22 carries.
“It’s a nice 1-2 punch for them,” Sharp said.
“With having a guy like (Price), you forget how talented (Hall) is,” Douglas said. “He’s talented enough to be a back on anybody’s team. But he’s savvy enough to where he can go out there and play quarterback for us and get out there on the edge. He’s probably had our most clutch catches all year, so he’s a hell of a player.”
North Kansas City clinched a district championship berth and next Friday will travel to top-seeded and defending state champion Staley, who beat Oak Park 24-0 in the other semifinal.
But Douglas recognized the berth was hard to come by against a hungry Park Hill South side.
“We’re going to get a team’s best effort and we did (tonight),” Douglas said. “Hats off to Park Hill South, they had a great game plan and they executed it and fought hard. They left it all out there.”
That game plan started with the Panthers executing an onside kick to open the contest. The Panthers, however, went three-and-out on their first and second possessions.
After stalling on its first possession, North Kansas City struck first on its second try, courtesy of Hall’s 40-yard touchdown run with 3:39 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers settled for a Michael Verhoeven 27-yard field goal after receiving a delay of game penalty on fourth-and-one from the 4-yard line. Verhoeven’s boot cut North Kansas City’s deficit to 7-3 with 1:43 left in the first frame.
After a Hornets’ turnover on downs, the Panthers gained their first lead on a play that caught the home side off guard. Suchanick pitched it back and to his right to running back Ta’Von Tusa, who then stopped and fired a pass over to his left to a wide open Suchanick, who ran for 23 yards and a touchdown. That score put the Panthers ahead 10-7 with 8:14 left in the second quarter.
Then, the Panthers’ defense went to work, as Payton Murray — who missed the regular-season finale vs. Liberty North — recorded an interception on a fourth-down play at the PHS 23 with four minutes remaining in the first half.
Park Hill South didn’t turn the takeaway into points, but it did burn out the clock before Verhoeven pushed a 47-yard field goal attempt wide right as the clock hit all zeros, giving the Panthers a 10-7 lead at the break.
Following intermission, Hall struck again with another big run, this time a 60-yard scamper to provide North Kansas City a 14-10 lead.
But Tusa had an immediate answer. The senior took the ensuing kickoff to the house for a 99-yard TD return to hand Park Hill South another three-point advantage with 9:34 left in the third quarter.
The Panther offense drained the clock from the back end of the third quarter until the 7-minute mark of the fourth quarter, using 15 plays to reach the 30-yard line before Verhoeven’s missed a 42-yarder.
Park Hill South, however, quickly regained possession after the Hornets, plagued by a holding penalty, were forced to punt. But then Hussain stripped and recovered Suchanick to align a Price 61-yard touchdown run.
Tusa, who hurt his hip on a play late in the third quarter, finished the contest with 12 carries for 84 yards, a touchdown pass and the special teams score.
“He was really good. He allowed us to eat a lot of the clock,” Sharp said of Tusa, who tried to return but had to be helped off the field after his lone fourth-quarter carry midway through the frame. “He just got hit really well on the hip and that just hurt him really bad. He had no motor there.”
The Panthers are due to graduate 27 seniors.
“That’ll hurt,” Sharp said. “This is our first class we’ve come through with. We’ve spent a lot of time with them.”
But Sharp will remember this group, which faced numerous injuries during a two-win campaign, for the way they pushed North Kansas City in the district semifinals.
“We believe that we’re a better football team than two wins. We just haven’t been able to get over the hump,” Sharp said. “We just wanted to keep the ball in our hands as much as possible and obviously we did a pretty good job for most of the night. We figured if we could dictate the clock we’d have a good shot.”
“Unfortunately, we just ran into one of the best Class 5 teams in the city.”