Platte County and Excelsior Springs — separated by just 45 miles of Highway 92 — last week crossed paths in football for the first time since 1915. Perhaps ironically, the visitors showed up perhaps running the same offense they did more than 100 years earlier in the only other meeting between the two schools.
Excelsior Springs’ veer option-based running attack cause problems at the beginning and end of a Class 4 District 8 semifinal Friday, Nov. 2 at Pirate Stadium. In between, Platte County did enough in a dominant third quarter to build a two-touchdown lead on the way to a well-earned and hard-fought 28-20 victory that finally provided separation between the two teams after their pre-World War I matchup ended in a 6-6 tie.
Platte County, ranked No. 4 in the Class 4 media poll for the postseason, improved to 10-1 overall and ran its win streak to eight. The Pirates used a kickoff return touchdown from senior wide receiver Brice Bertram to start the third quarter to go in front for good, and senior quarterback Spencer Stewart led a time-killing drive that last more than 7 minutes to set up an anticipated rematch with No. 6 Smithville in this week’s Class 4 District 8 title game back at Pirate Stadium.
“I knew as soon as we had a lead, we would probably be OK,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said. “Concern, but I also knew we had a lot of stuff that we could fix — get some alignments right and a few adjustments to make. We walked away feeling blessed to get out of here because again, they are a team that can cause us some problems. And they did.
“It’s nice to be able to have some of those mistakes and still be able to advance. We feel good about that, but it also gives some opportunities to improve and get better.”
In the other Class 4 District 8 semifinal last week, Smithville (10-1) defeated Kearney (8-3) for a second time in three weeks behind the play of record-setting senior quarterback Kellen Simoncic, the big-play ability of senior receiver/defensive back Garrett Thompson and the unmistakable presence of senior linebacker/fullback Brian Boyd. Platte County and the Warriors met in Week 6 with the Pirates overcoming a seemingly insurmountable 27-0 deficit — incidentally kickstarted by a long Bertram kickoff return — in a stunning 28-27 win.
That result eventually allowed Platte County to take the district’s top seed and the right to host the title game, which will now provide a chance to end any arguments made about who deserved to be at the top of the bracket.
Platte County will be in the district championship game for a fourth straight season, seeking a second straight Class 4 playoff berth. The Pirates will play Smithville in the Class 4 District 8 bracket for a seventh straight year — all since the current postseason format was adopted prior to the 2012 season.
In those meetings, Platte County has gone 4-2, including three straight wins in semifinal matchups. Smithville last won a district title in 2001 when the Warriors were still Class 3.
“This is a situation where mistakes are going to have to be limited,” Utz said. “I don’t think their energy level is going to be hard for us to meet. There’s a little bit of a rivalry already started there, as it’s been for the past several years. This year just kind of adds to it.”
In what could be the toughest top five for any district in the state, Platte County, Smithville, Kearney and Excelsior Springs all entered the district semifinals with at least eight wins.
No. 4-seeded Excelsior Springs entered off a win over fifth-seeded Lafayette (7-3) in the first round and went into halftime tied with Platte County at 14-14. The game flipped when Bertram took short kickoff and sprinted up the middle before breaking out toward the visitor’s sideline, going nearly all 79 yards untouched to give the Pirates their first lead of the night at 21-14.
Close numerous times this season to breaking a kickoff return, Bertram finally assured Platte County wouldn’t go a full season without that specific type of special teams touchdown.
“Every week, it seems I’m a little bit closer, a little bit closer, a little bit closer,” said Bertram, held without a catch on offense and kept out of the end zone through the air for the first time since Week 2. “It didn’t seem like it would be this week because they can’t kick deep. But as soon as I got that one over the middle and ran right up the middle, I thought, ‘I gotta take this back; there’s got to be some hole.’ Looked off to the right, ran off, and as soon as I saw nothing but green, the only thing in mind was just to go.”
The momentum from the big play carried over, and Platte County’s defense forced its first two three-and-out punts to start the third quarter. In the first half, Excelsior Springs only punted once with its run-heavy sets, and the Tigers ended up with more than 350 yards of offense — all on the ground — and converted 9 of 18 third downs and 2 of 4 fourth downs.
Platte County lost senior linebacker Omar Garcia to an apparent leg injury in the first half and utilized a unique 4-2-5 look for much of the game. Pirates junior safety Trent Rueckert (17) led the defense with 17 tackles, while senior safety Nolan Saale (13) and senior defensive lineman Peyton Stoner (11) also finished in double figures. Players with at least seven tackles also included junior defensive lineman Garret Watson (nine), Garcia (eight), sophomore defensive lineman Forrest Boynton (eight), junior safety Will Hay (seven) and junior linebacker Gabe Harmon (seven).
Pushed back much of the first half, four-man front sets that included Stoner, Watson, Boynton and sophomores Alex Stearns and Keaton Smith (four tackles apiece) found their footing in a second half that went much differently for Platte County.
“The second half, we just got out there, got a little bit of energy to us,” Saale said. “Omar went down, and that was pretty big, but we were just next man up. We went to that four-man front, and D-linemen were getting physical and causing havoc at the line of scrimmage.”
In addition to the Platte County took advantage of second three-and-out with a 72-yard touchdown drive to extend the lead to 28-14. Pirates senior running back Adel Freitek, who totaled 135 yards on 19 efficient carries, had runs of 15 and 16 to move into Excelsior Springs territory, and he finished off the five-play march with a 15-yard touchdown run.
The defense provided one more stop, but there were no more points for the district’s top seed.
Following Platte County’s second punt from just inside Excelsior Springs territory, the Tigers went 79 yards on 13 plays to cut their deficit to 28-20, but the extra point missed to compound the difficulty of a potential comeback with 7 minutes, 9 seconds to go.
“We knew once we got a lead, it was going to be hard for them to come back,” Saale said. “Once we actually got that lead, we were a little more comfortable. Even when they were driving down the field, it wasn’t a big play. We made them earn it.”
Platte County responded by running out the clock using 14 plays, including two kneeldowns late. The Pirates converted three critical first downs on the drive, starting with Stewart’s 14-yard rollout completion to senior wide receiver Dylan Gilbert on a third-and-10 that finished with the quarterback pushing his star receiver and the pile upfield for the final few yards. Stewart also completed a third-and-5 pass to junior Donny MacCuish for 10 yards, and the diminutive senior signalcaller finished the effort himself with a 10-yard run around right end on a quarterback sweep.
Stewart even slid down inbounds at the Excelsior Springs 7-yard line to ensure Platte County could run out the final minute-plus just by snapping the ball three times.
“Whenever we need a play, I’ve got to make it — keep the drive alive, do whatever I can to get the ball past the chains,” said Stewart, who finished 7 of 17 passing for 169 yards and one touchdown. “That can be using my feet to extend the play, using my feet to get the first down or just letting my running back or receivers do the work. It was a whole team effort, and yeah, those third down conversions were huge.”
Platte County’s offensive numbers were notably down, but Gilbert — the program’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards — totaled five catches for 126 yards. The Pirates played without sophomore wide receiver Dayton Mitchell (illness) and only ended up throwing the ball 17 times on 47 total offensive snaps.
Freitek led a rushing attack that ripped off yards in big chunks despite playing without senior left tackle Wyett Wallingford (illness) in the first half, leaving sophomore Trey Butcher and junior Luke Seigel in important roles.
Excelsior Springs controlled the clock throughout the first half, driving 75 yards on the game’s opening possession to eat nearly 8 minutes of clock. However, Platte County eventually held on downs only to miss out on a chance to take an early lead due to a bad snap and two dropped passes.
Platte County senior punter — and more importantly, starting right tackle Reid Sutter — flipped the field with a 51-yard kick, but the effort went for naught.
Excelsior Springs junior quarterback Tae Rainey went 65 yards on an option keeper on the next play to give the underdog Tigers the 7-0 lead. Platte County drove to tie the score on the ensuring possession with Gilbert hauling in a 10-yard TD with less than a minute to go in the first quarter, and the Tigers punted for the first time early in the second quarter, only for Stewart to throw a costly interception on the nex play deep in his own territory.
Three plays later, Rainey, who finished with 190 yards on 26 carries, ran in from 14 yards out to put Excelsior Springs up 14-7.
“We knew early on that if they did what they were able to do, (playing from behind) would be something we were going to have to deal with,” Utz said. “I’m not going to lie, and I’ll say I’m surprised it did go all the way through the second quarter.”
Platte County again answered immediately with Freitek doing most of the work on four carries. However, Carter Utt notched his second big catch in as many weeks — a 33-yard completion over the middle with the senior stumbling down just 2 yards short of recording his second career touchdown on his second career catch.
Cayden Davis, sophomore backup, scored on the next play with his only carry of the game.
Excelsior Springs held the ball for nearly the final 7:13 of the first half, and two penalties stalled a drive that again reached the red zone. The stop allowed Platte County to go into halftime tied, and Bertram’s kickoff return for a touchdown provided the only lead the Pirates needed while forcing the Tigers to play from behind with a run-first, run-second, run-third offense.
“We knew their offense was going to take away some of our offensive possessions,” Stewart said, “so whenever we got the ball, we had to make it count. I thought we could’ve done a little better job with that, but overall, we did what it takes to win. That’s all that matters.”
Despite not taking advantage of all the opportunities afforded, Platte County held on for the win and earned the right to host a district championship for a second straight year. The Pirates’ hopes of celebrating in front of the home crowd again will likely hinge on avoiding another slow start in the first half — like the one against Excelsior Springs and the almost disastrous beginning to the first meeting with Smithville a little more than a month ago.
Smithville will be a much more familiar foe, and this will be the 96th meeting between the two teams with Platte County holding a 57-32-6 lead in the all-time series. While there might not have been a more memorable finish than the Pirates comeback win earlier this season, this matchup might create the most excitement with both teams having endured plenty of time to reminisce on what went right and what went wrong in the 28-27 instant classic.
“We’ve just got to really look at that second half of film,” Saale said. “That was the Platte County we want to be. If we play like that all four quarters, we should be fine.”