Trey Phan turned to sprint back toward the Platte County sideline in celebration, only to encounter an on-field mob ready to congratulate him.
The undersized senior running back missed some preseason time due to illness and came into the Friday, Aug. 30 opener expected to be a backup, change-of-pace options. An injury to junior Cayden Davis altered Platte County’s backfield, and Phan responded in the Pirates’ 38-15 season-opening win over Oak Park at Pirate Stadium.
After scoring his first two varsity touchdowns on consecutive possessions, Phan encountered starting tackles Trey Butcher and Wyett Wallingford almost immediately. The hulking junior and senior linemen were exuberant in their celebrations but made sure not to treat Phan too roughly.
“I thought (Wallingford and Butcher) were going to try and pick me up, but they more just tried to push me over a little bit,” said Phan, who finished with team-highs of 10 carries and 70 yards in the first significant varsity action of his career.
Platte County answered a lot of questions in Week 1 — both experiencing success and dealing with some adversity in another opener against a Class 5 foe.
Oak Park twice had an opportunity in the first half to put pressure on the hosts, but the Pirates’ experienced defense came up with two big responses. Then the less-seasoned offense returned the favor in a pivotal spot in the third quarter with junior quarterback Chris Ruhnke leading a critical touchdown drive.
A pick-six for senior Trent Rueckert in the second quarter and a last-second goal line stand to close the first half helped Platte County avoid dramatics. With the win the Pirates (1-0) maintained their No. 4 ranking in Class 4 with another test looming at Class 5 Park Hill South this week.
“We knew there would be some kind of adversity, and I think we reacted pretty well to it,” Phan said.
Oak Park ended up outgaining Platte County 308-291, but three turnovers crippled the Northmen’s upset hopes. None were more damaging than Rueckert’s timely interception and return.
Within 10-7 early in the second quarter, Oak Park (0-1) started a drive at its own 9 with 11 minutes, 2 seconds left in the half. The Northmen marched into the red zone with help from an untimely facemask penalty on a fourth down play. They faced a fourth and 6 at Platte County’s 14 moments later when Pirates sophomore linebacker Trevor Scott burst through the line and delivered a big hit on Oak Park quarterback Blake Bland as he went to pass.
The ball fluttered into Rueckert’s hands, and he returned the pick 92 yards for a touchdown with Scott getting up from the QB pressure to deliver a key block, as well. The defensive touchdown was the first of Rueckert’s career and brought back memories of Platte County’s 35-0 win over Oak Park a year earlier when senior Will Hay and graduated safety Nolan Saale had defensive touchdowns to fuel a rout.
“I had no idea (I would score on the play),” said Rueckert, who finished with six tackles. “I got a great block from Trevor Scott, and props to him and the D-line for getting that pressure. That’s fantastic.”
“I’m going to remember that one for a while.”
Comfortably up 17-7, Platte County then had to survive the first half’s second errant punt snap that resulted in a 25-yard loss with only 38 seconds left in the second quarter. Oak Park quickly gained a first down with an 18-yard completion from Bland to Logan Willman that put the Northmen at the Pirates’ 5.
A spike stopped the clock, and Oak Park ran on second down with Platte County senior linebacker Gabe Harmon and junior defensive lineman Forrest Boynton combining to strip Bland of the football. The Northmen recovered, and because the officials ruled they were being prevented from spotting the ball for another play, the clock stopped with 6 seconds left.
Oak Park again spiked the ball at the 3 with 4 seconds left to set up a final fourth down play. The Northmen ran again, and Harmon led another defensive charge to stop running back Najib Alhakeem at the 1 as time expired in the half.
“The defense has a lot of heart,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “For them to come up, and one, get the stop with the interception return was a huge series. Then you turn around and coming off that long series and tired and all that, you get that stop on the goal line in a really tough spot, it was big. We went in with a lead instead of possibly being behind.”
Platte County’s offense carried the momentum into the second half.
After a 39-yard kickoff return from junior Dayton Mitchell, the Pirates needed just four plays to score. A 35-yard over-the-shoulder completion from Ruhnke to tip-toeing senior wide receiver Hunter Clarkson put them at the 5, and Phan plunged in from 5 yards out two plays later to make it 24-7.
Oak Park went three-and-out, and after a short punt, Phan dashed around the right side on a block from Wallingford and sprinted down the sideline for a 37-yard touchdown to make it 31-7 less than 4 minutes into the second half.
Davis started at running back for Platte County and carried five times but left the game after a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and didn’t return. That left Phan, senior Lewis Hunter (five carries, 22 yards) and sophomore Ben McDaniel (five carries, 17 yards) to split the carries for the final three-plus quarters.
“We moved him from receiver, and he was way behind on where he needed to be there,” Utz said. “But I think you can see why we moved him to running back. He’s extremely athletic, and once he sees the hole, he has the wheels to make a big difference there.”
Platte County had a chance to expand its lead after sophomore cornerback Cade Fowler — making his first career start — picked off Bland three plays later. The Pirates didn’t score off the turnover, and Oak Park struck for a second passing touchdown late in the third quarter on a 51-yard completion from Bland to Willman down the visitor’s sideline.
After a two-point conversion, Platte County’s lead was trimmed to two possessions at 31-15, but Ruhnke responded with his best series of the night. He completed two passes to Mitchell and another to senior Cam Scheib before hitting junior Colby Rollins for an 18-yard score on a fade pattern into the end zone along the right sideline.
The scoring connection accounted for the final points of the night with 2:38 left in the third quarter and capped Ruhnke’s first career start. He entered following three quarterbacks with all-state credentials that led Platte County over the previous five seasons, and his first possession began at Oak Park’s 29 after the Pirates’ defense forced a three-and-out after the opening kickoff.
Following a short punt, Ruhnke passed for an initial first down, but Platte County settled for a 44-yard field goal from senior kicker Grant Allen, who booted the ball through the uprights with plenty of room to spare. The first touchdown drive with Ruhnke under center came after another quick three-and-out. He completed passes of 31 yards to Rollins and then 18 yards to senior Donny Maccuish, and four plays later, Davis scored from 1 yard out on fourth-and-1 to spot the Pirates a quick 10-0 lead.
Davis was the most experienced skill position player back for Platte County, but injury limited him to 8 yards on five carries. Ruhnke finished 14 of 25 through the air for 197 yards and the one touchdown. His new cast of receivers included role players from last year like Mitchell (five catches, 69 yards) and Maccuish (two catches, 18 yards), while Scheib (two catches, 17 yards), Rollins (two catches, 49 yards) and Clarkson (one catch, 35 yards) provided a glimpse of the potential balance.
“They are a group that’s interchangeable. It’s nice to see the ball distributed so well with Chris getting the ball to who was open,” Utz said.
Platte County benefited from its experienced offensive line that included returning starters Wallingford and Butcher at tackle, senior center Luke Seigel and senior guard Max Renner, who was back after missing last week’s jamboree due to a knee injury. The Pirates split reps at the other guard spot between seniors Gunner Tongate and Johnathan Owen as they continue to evaluate options.
Ruhnke wasn’t sacked and rarely pressured, while Platte County managed to rush for more than 100 yards despite employing a deep running back committee.
“That’s still a work in progress for sure, but they did a nice job,” Utz said.
Platte County’s defense showed a few flaws but also overcame some adversity with junior defensive lineman Alex Stearns knocked out of the game on the opening kickoff. He left with a right arm injury and did not return, forcing senior Kevin Fagan (two tackles) into a starting role at defensive tackle. He was not on the team the previous two years before reemerging on the defensive side of the ball in 2019.
Rueckert’s defensive touchdown and the goal-line stand ensured Oak Park never led, and the Northmen were never closer than 10-7. Harmon had a team-high seven tackles from his middle linebacker spot, while junior Spencer Cupp — moved from linebacker to defensive back — added five. Scott, Fowler, Boynton and junior cornerback Colin Tyson had four apiece.
In addition, Scott, Boynton and senior defensive end Garret Watson had a sack apiece, and sophomore reserve Blaine Keuhn ended Oak Park’s final possession with Platte County’s third interception of the night. The Pirates will look to build on the positives into Week 2 at Park Hill South, coming off a 35-0 loss to Class 6 Raymore-Peculiar — another opponent of the Pirates’ later in the season.
Platte County won last year’s matchup with Park Hill South 45-14, but there can’t be any looking past the Panthers with a pivotal Suburban Conference Blue Division rivalry matchup with Kearney looming in Week 3.
“Until you kind of know what these kids are made of, I mean we know what they’re made of, but until they get the experience of it, you have some growing pains to get through,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “And we did (against Oak Park). We have a lot of things we need to fix, but at least we can see it, they can see it. We anticipate to get better quickly.”