Pirates snap 8-game losing streak against Kearney

Platte County finally enjoyed the opportunity to “put a little orange” on the Highway 92 Showdown’s road-sign emblazoned traveling trophy. Pirates’ veteran coach Bill Utz showed just a hint of a celebratory smile mixed with some obvious and understandable relief even after a 51-14 bulldozing of Kearney on Friday, Sept. 13 at Pirate Stadium.

The players’ cheers echoed through the emptying stands as Utz tacked on the orange 2019 sticker ending the run of purple years in the contentious rivalry series.

Platte County junior quarterback Chris Ruhnke completed 18 of 23 passes to finish with career-highs of 290 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Pirates in halting the program’s only frustratingly long losing streak in decades. Kearney had won eight straight meetings between the two teams separated by about 25 miles  — all five matchups since the 2014 inception of the Highway 92 Showdown trophy named for the road that separates the two schools — and 13 of 14 overall.

“It’s been a long time,” Utz said. “First of all, you have to give credit to Kearney’s program; it’s a great program, so coming out on top against them is an accomplishment we’ve fought for a long time. I’m happy for these guys to finally get that, and it does feel good.”

With Platte County coming off a shocking 31-19 loss to Class 5 Park Hill South and considering the matchup, not many would have predicted this outcome. The Pirates not only responded to a challenge from the coaches but did so with emphatic performances on both side of the ball.

ROSS MARTIN/Special to the Citizen  Platte County players celebrate after getting their hands on the Highway 92 Showdown road sign traveling trophy after a 51-14 victory on Friday, Sept. 13 at Pirate Stadium in Platte City.

ROSS MARTIN/Special to the Citizen

Platte County players celebrate after getting their hands on the Highway 92 Showdown road sign traveling trophy after a 51-14 victory on Friday, Sept. 13 at Pirate Stadium in Platte City.

The offense started fast and created separation with all four of Ruhnke’s touchdown passes coming in the first half — two to junior Colby Rollins. From there, Platte County’s defense, which allowed 28 unanswered in the loss to Park Hill South, held strong behind the consistent presence of senior defensive end Garret Watson (two tackles for loss, two sacks) and timely interceptions from senior safety Trent Rueckert and sophomore linebacker Trevor Scott, who returned his for a touchdown to give the Pirates their final points and a 51-7 lead late in the fourth quarter.

Kearney senior running back Garrett Laughlin had 182 yards rushing but 72 came on a late touchdown drive against Platte County’s second-string defense. Removing the 77 yards accrued on that series, the Bulldogs didn’t even manage 200 yards of offense.

“We were pretty solid all night,” said Watson, who dedicated his performance — arguably the most impactful for him in three years as a starter — to his late grandfather, who would’ve turned 73 on the day of the Kearney game.

Platte County had raced to a 19-3 lead against Park Hill South before struggling on either side of halftime to allow the Panthers an opening for a comeback. Up 21-7 on Kearney, the Pirates were in a similar position but didn’t repeat the pattern, marching into halftime with all the momentum thanks to a late surge. 

Following Kearney’s third punt of the first half, Ruhnke orchestrated an efficient seven-play, 51-yard touchdown drive capped with a play that epitomized his patience and pocket presence in just the third start of his career.

Facing first and goal at the 8, Ruhnke looked right toward a trio of receivers lined up on that side of the formation. The offensive line of seniors Wyett Wallingford, Max Renner, Gunner Tongate, Johnathan Owen and Luke Seigel plus junior Trey Butcher kept the quarterback clean most of the night and did so again on this play, allowing him to look back left and throw a jump ball to Rollins, who outleaped Kearney junior defensive back Dawson Meinert for an acrobatic touchdown catch.

“It was trips right, and I can’t remember the play,” said Rollins, who has four touchdown catches in his first three career starts and at least one in every game this year. “Chris looked; he saw there was nobody open. He turned back around, and I just kind of peeled off, and Chris saw me. He just threw it up there, and I jumped up and brought it back down. It was honestly one of the greatest feelings.”

“Jumping up there, catching it and coming back down with it was surreal. It’s almost like you don’t remember what happened.”

With the score, Platte County led 28-7 with just 1 minute, 30 seconds left before halftime but weren’t done scoring before the break.

On the very next snap, Rueckert picked off a pass from Kearney sophomore quarterback Ian Acosta over the middle and took the return toward the home sideline, nearly bringing his second interception of the season back for a score just as he did with his first in a Week 1 win over Oak Park. The Pirates were set up with a first-and-goal at the 10 and settled for a 17-yard field goal from senior Grant Allen to put the Pirates up 31-7 at halftime.

Platte County went scoreless in the third quarter for a second straight week with a pair of three-and-outs, but the defense remained relentless during the same stretch. 

Noticeably, Watson, who finished with four tackles (two for loss), jumped up to tip a fourth-down pass from Acosta and force a turnover on downs with Kearney’s deficit still at 24 points. Two plays later and on the first snap of the fourth quarter, Pirates junior running back Cayden Davis went through a huge hole untouched for a 23-yard touchdown.

“That felt good. I might not have got the QB, but it’s just as good,” Watson said of the tipped pass.

ROSS MARTIN/Special to the Citizen  Platte County’s Dayton Mitchell hauls in a catch against Kearney on Friday, Sept. 13 at Pirate Stadium.

ROSS MARTIN/Special to the Citizen

Platte County’s Dayton Mitchell hauls in a catch against Kearney on Friday, Sept. 13 at Pirate Stadium.

Davis entered the season as a projected starter at running back, but an ankle injury has slowed his production. He finished with a team-high 43 yards on just six carries after missing the Week 2 game against Park Hill South. His absence has left smallish senior speedster Trey Phan in the featured role, but he was limited to just 15 yards rushing against Kearney after scoring two touchdowns in each of the first two games this season.

Meanwhile, Platte County senior Lewis Hunter has earned a portion of the carries, and he added 28 yards on nine carries in the win over Kearney — five straight on a second scoring drive in the fourth quarter. He finished the quick drive with a 4-yard touchdown run, which was the first of his career.

“After seeing (Davis) come back after being sidelined, it felt good to get him back in the end zone where he belongs,” Renner said. “Lewis is just our power back so it was nice to see him in the end zone, too, and get some carries.”

With the 35-point running clock initiated after Hunter’s score put Platte County up 45-7, Acosta threw his second interception three plays later, and Scott raced 40 yards down the far sideline on the return for the first touchdown of his career to make it 51-7 after a missed extra point.

Kearney kept the starters in for an ensuing 77-yard drive, which featured plenty of carries for Laughlin and finished with a 35-yard touchdown run through the Pirates’ reserves.

By that time, Platte County was ready to collect for the first time the Highway 92 Showdown traveling trophy, which features a color-coded sticker denoting the years for each team’s victory. Kearney has owned the rivalry in recent years but finally stumbled in a game with Missouri media ranking, Suburban Conference Blue Division and Class 4 District 8 implications.

“We just didn’t know for sure how they were going to react (in this game),” Utz said. “They answered the challenge we gave them from the start. We gave them a pretty hard week of practice, and they responded with obviously a fun win.”

Platte County set the tone from the outset, even overcoming an early miscue. The Pirates took the opening kickoff, and Ruhnke had completions to junior wide receiver Dayton Mitchell and senior wide receivers Hunter Clarkson and Donny Maccuish before uncorking a 48-yard touchdown pass to Rollins well behind the Kearney defense.

In all, Platte County went 80 yards in just 1:18 to take a 7-0 lead, an advantage that wouldn’t be relinquished.

A sack from senior defensive tackle James Gladden ended Kearney’s opening drive, and the Pirates appeared headed for another score on their second drive when Cam Scheib’s long catch and run ended with a lost fumble inside the red zone. Those type of mistakes have been costly in recent losses to the Bulldogs but not this time around.

Watson recorded a sack to stop the next drive, and after a punt, Platte County had a short drive — aided by a pass interference penalty — that ended with Mitchell hauling in a 32-yard touchdown pass from Ruhnke. Mitchell had team-highs of five catches and 106 yards in the game but recorded his first touchdown of the season after entering 2019 as the top returning pass catcher on the roster.

Ruhnke struggled at times in Week 2 against Park Hill South but quickly came back in a high-pressure situation to stabilize Platte County after the early turnover.

“We worked with (Ruhnke a lot this week),” Utz said of Ruhnke. “Coach (Wayne) Baskerville is a tremendous quarterback coach, and he worked with Chris, showed him film and talked to him about a lot of aspects of our game plan. Chris is such a smart kid that he’s able to implement that. He does a great job of staying calm.”

Down 14-0, Kearney responded with its only touchdown drive against the starters — inserting some misdirection to create running lanes for Laughlin and Acosta, who connected on a 4-yard touchdown pass on a play-action bootleg to cut the deficit to 14-7 with 9:25 left in the half. The Bulldogs had very little success the rest of the night thanks to Platte County’s disruptively reconfigured defensive line.

While Watson had been shifted to defensive end after two years at defensive tackle to start the season, the Pirates moved Gladden from the opposite side to the interior against Kearney. That allowed senior Kevin Fagan (three tackles) and junior Keaton Smith to rotate at the nose guard spot, while junior Forrest Boynton started at defensive end with junior Alex Stearns still out after injuring his elbow on the season’s opening kickoff.

Boynton collected Platte County’s fourth sack against Kearney, while sophomore cornerback Cade Fowler (seven), senior linebacker Gabe Harmon (six), senior safety Will Hay (six) and Scott (five) were the top tacklers.

“We were shuffling, and it seemed like our two bigger body guys (Fagan and Smith) had more rest and were more energized and getting a bigger push, and James was using his speed and strength,” Watson said. “It definitely helped me. We did some nice interior stunts that worked really well. They just couldn’t handle the pressure we were giving them.”

After the only brief hiccup from the defense, Platte County immediately answered with another score. Two completions from Ruhnke to Mitchell and another defensive pass interference penalty moved the Pirates into Kearney territory, and a 27-yard catch and run from Phan set up a first and goal at the Bulldogs’ 3.

Phan ran to the 1 on first down and then avoided disaster on second down when Platte County fell on a fumbled exchange at the 6. On the next play, Ruhnke found Phan — a wide receiver turned running back — all alone for a 6-yard touchdown in the right-hand side of the end zone after the Kearney defense fell for some misdirection action from the receivers on the play. The Pirates were up 21-7 and wouldn’t look back after Ruhnke’s fourth touchdown pass minutes later.

Ruhnke spread his 18 completions out to seven different receivers with Rollins also hauling in 5 passes for 79 yards, Clarkson continuing his trend of key receptions with two more in addition to Phan, (two for 33 yards) and Maccuish (two for 23 yards) having multiple catches.

Platte County enjoyed such a good night that the only two punts averaged 53.5 yards in a strong day for Allen — the senior kicker now doubling as punter. The results were a stark contrast from going scoreless for the final 2½ quarters in the previous week’s loss to Park Hill South.

“I feel like we used last week to push forward,” Renner said. “We knew this game mattered so we used it as a springboard to start the bounceback. I think we flushed that game right when practice started Monday. We knew that game was done and over, so we had to bounce back, focus on this game and make this one better.”

Platte County moved up just one spot from No. 8 to No. 7 in the latest Class 4 Missouri media rankings, while Kearney tumbled from No. 7 to only receiving one vote and dropping out of the top 10 for the first time in recent memory. 

The road for Platte County doesn’t let up with Grain Valley (2-1) still receiving votes in the Class 4 poll after a 40-29 loss to Smithville last week. The Pirates host Smithville (3-0 and ranked No. 5 in this week’s poll) in Week 5 to cap a difficult stretch of four conference games in what could be another wild season in the Blue Division.

Last year, Platte County won eight straight after a Week 3 loss to Kearney to split the league title with the Bulldogs and Smithville. That also gave the Pirates the top seed in Class 4 District 8, which Smithville advanced out of on the way to the state semifinals.

“I told them it’s natural to have a letdown after a big win, and we’re not going to. That’s not how this is going to go down,” Utz said. “We’ll continue with work this week and make sure they’re ready.”

However, Platte County certainly took some time to relish the long-awaited win over Kearney. A strong contingent of former players were in attendance and on the sideline, and none of them had the opportunity to be a part of a victorious moment like this one over the Bulldogs — the program’s chief nemesis for more than a decade.

Derek Kohler. Justin Mitchell. Dylan Gilbert. John Watts. Dakota Schmidt. Lloyd Lockett. Kevin Neal. The list of all-state players could go on.

Platte County coaches and players, especially third-year starters like Watson and Renner, made it clear that this win meant a lot to them because of the difficult history with Kearney. This was the group to finally break back through, but the others that endured heart-breaking losses — some to end a season — kept the Pirates’ program on the right track and continually turned it over to the next class in good condition.

The first orange Platte County put on the Highway 92 Showdown trophy will be the mark this group leaves behind.

“This means a lot,” Watson said. “They never had this opportunity. They never got to feel what this feels like. I hope this brings joy to them as well as us.”

“It’s just nice to look back at the other teams and see that we made them proud by getting it done,” Renner added. “The sign sticks around with us for a year now.”