MOBERLY, Mo. — Playoff victories shouldn’t come so easy.
After a recent tortured history in the postseason, Platte County didn’t mind enjoying the moment during a 42-14 dismantling of Moberly on Friday, Nov. 10 at Dr. Larry K. Noel Spartan Stadium. The Pirates were able to pull the starters early in the second half with a six-touchdown lead in the lopsided Class 4 quarterfinal matchup on a cold and windy night in central Missouri.
With the win, Platte County advanced back to a state semifinal for the first time since 2005 and for the first time since moving up to Class 4. The Pirates have made the semifinals on five other occasions, including four straight times from 1999-2002 — the final three during a run of three straight undefeated Class 3A state championships.
“We’ve got a pretty special group. It’s fun to see these guys have success,” said Platte County coach Bill Utz, who won his second playoff game since taking over the Pirates’ program in 2008. “I’m blessed to be coaching in a very storied program anyway, so it’s good for us to get to this point and keep this going. This is what we’re playing for so to be able to get back to it, it’s a testament of a lot of great coaching, a lot of great players, a lot of kids buying into the culture, great fans standing here in the freezing temperatures — everything. It’s just awesome.”
No. 6-ranked Platte County (11-2) earns a unique opportunity. On Saturday, Nov. 18, the Pirates kick off at 1:30 p.m. against No. 1 Webb City — the 13-time Class 4A/4 state championship dynasty.
Both teams played Harrisonville this season with Webb City scoring a 24-0 shutout in last week’s quarterfinal matchup. Platte County held off the Wildcats for a 20-12 victory in Week 3, but the current Pirates look much different.
Platte County senior wide receiver Devin Richardson didn’t play against Harrisonville, which became the first team to employ the now consistent double- and triple-teams of 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver John Watts. The Pirates also played most of the second half without senior linebacker Kobe Cummings, who suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss a pair of games later in the season.
Webb City took advantage of five turnovers to beat Harrisonville last week, avenging a 2016 loss to the Wildcats in the same round.
The last state title for Webb City came in 2014, and the Cardinals have won 18 consecutive district titles dating back to 2000. This will be the first ever meeting with Platte County, which has a 3-2 record in five previous semifinal appearances.
Platte County last made the playoffs in 2012 and after consecutive losses in the Class 4 District 8 final to Kearney, which beat Webb City in the 2015 state championship game, the current group of players have the chance to face off with one of the state’s most decorated programs, hoping to return the Pirates to their former glory. The winner advances to the Class 4 state title game, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25 at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo.
“I can’t even describe it,” Cummings said. “I think this team is the most ready it’s ever been.”
After finally conquering one of the state’s toughest districts in the current postseason format, Platte County made quick work of Moberly (10-3) in the quarterfinal matchup, ending the Spartans’ 10-game winning streak. The Pirates scored on five of seven possessions in the first half along with senior defensive lineman Chase Blankenship’s short fumble return touchdown to build a 42-0 lead.
Platte County senior quarterback Tanner Clarkson went 13-for-19 for 231 yards with three passing touchdowns in addition to a 26-yard scoring run on a keeper late in the first quarter. Richardson caught three passes for 70 yards — two of them going for touchdowns — while Watts added three catches for a team-high 72 yards and a touchdown, his fourth in four postseason games.
The offense remained balanced for Platte County with senior running back Gavin Hardman running for 91 yards on nine carries, while junior Adel Freitek added 56.
Platte County continued to work with junior Peyton Stoner at left guard in his third start since moving over from the defensive line. He took the spot senior Matt Blaha vacated when he moved over to left tackle following junior Glen Gammill’s season-ending knee injury in a Week 6 overtime win against Liberty.
While junior right tackle Reid Sutter and senior center Trevor Tietz have been in their spots all season, Platte County’s recent shuffle also leaves sophomore guard Max Renner and senior Matthew Knopp rotating in at guard.
“We’re working together well, playing as a team, and I think we have something special going on,” said Stoner, a second-year starter seeing his first extended action on the offensive line. “We’ve got two more games, hopefully. Any way I can help out, I’m playing for the team, and it’s all about winning.”
Platte County started slow with Clarkson throwing an interception to end a promising drive on the game’s opening possession.
However, the defense ran its scoreless streak to six straight quarters coming off of a shutout against St. Joseph Lafayette in the District 8 title game. Blankenship and senior defensive end Michael Smith, who extended his team single-season record for sacks to 16½ with one against Moberly, continued to lead the way up front on a unit that also includes defensive tackles Sage Smart (senior) and Garret Watson (sophomore) after Stoner made the switch.
Platte County senior linebacker Dakota Schmidt extended his career school record for tackles with a team-high six.
Moberly punted on each of its first three drives to set up three straight two-play scoring drives for the Pirates — an 18-yard catch and run with a dive to the pylon for Richardson, a 21-yard fade touchdown pass to Watts over an undersized cornerback and Clarkson’s 26-yard scamper down the home sideline on a keeper to make it 21-0. The Spartans had just one first down in that span.
On Moberly’s fourth possession, quarterback Nick Gelina scampered 80 yards on an option play with Platte County senior safety Jackson Phan running him down and tripping him up from behind at the Pirates’ 10. The Spartans couldn’t score on four goal-to-go plays with junior Dylan Gilbert tipping a fourth down pass up in the air that junior safety Nolan Saale intercepted.
With the defensive line and standout linebacker duo doing much of the flashy work, Gilbert and senior JP Post have locked down Platte County’s cornerback spots. The recent defensive performances — just 48 points in four postseason games since a loss to Kearney in the regular season finale — have been with simplified responsibilities for the three safeties.
Big plays from Phan (four tackles) and Saale (three tackles) ended Moberly’s first and only scoring threat against the first string, and senior safety Hunter Tongate made six tackles to help limit the Spartans’ offense.
“I don’t think anyone was really worried,” Saale said. “We knew if we just fix our mistakes, there’s no offense that can really drive down the field on us. We just can’t give up big plays.”
Platte County responded to the stop, turning the interception into a 10-play touchdown drive, capped with a 1-yard scoring pass from Clarkson to Richardson for a 28-0 lead. Blankenship ended Moberly’s next possession with a fourth down sack after the Spartans breeched Pirates’ territory again.
Two run plays for 34 yards for Freitek and Hardman’s 26-yard touchdown run made it 35-0. Two plays later, Cummings sacked Gelina and knocked the ball loose, and Blankenship picked it up and scooted 5 yards for his first career touchdown.
“When you’re up on a team like that, you just have to step on it and keep the gas going,” Cummings said.
Up 42-0, Platte County took possession one more time and drove to the Moberly 1, but the Spartans held on four straight plays with less than a minute to go. They ran the final play of the first half with Blankenship stripping the ball away and going into the end zone only for the referees to have ruled Gelina’s progress stopped on the short keeper run.
Moberly fumbled the third quarter kickoff and lost a fumble on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.
Platte County couldn’t take advantage, fumbling the ball back and throwing a pick-six on its first two possessions after halftime. Moberly added a long touchdown run for Gelina — his second score of the game — to stop the running clock in the fourth quarter, but the Pirates were content with the outcome.
“There’s an edge that’s off there. There just is,” Utz said. “It’s not something we like to see, but the game was under control.”
Despite the lackluster finish, Clarkson extended his single-season school records for passing touchdowns (38) and passing yards, becoming the first in Platte County history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. He’s currently at 3,071.
Richardson made it at least one touchdown catch in 11 of 12 games played. Entering the season with just one career catch, he became the third player for the Pirates with 1,000 receiving yards in a season, joining Scottie Wilson (2012) and Kyle Knox (2006).
The 16 receiving touchdowns this season for Richardson ties the Platte County school record Jim Myers held by himself for 50 years since setting it in 1968. Watts now has nine touchdowns this season and 20 in his career, currently fourth on the Pirates’ all-time list.
The individual achievements tell the story of a Platte County team that is now just the eighth in program history to win 11 games — all since 1994 (11-2 so far in 2017, 11-2 in 2005, 14-0 in 2002, 14-0 in 2001, 14-0 in 2000, 12-1 in 1999, 11-1 in 1997, 11-1 in 1994). The Pirates want to take advantage of the chance other talented groups missed out on during the previous 11 seasons.
Webb City stands in the way of a Platte County team hoping to write the next historic chapter for a program still known for its state championship run more than a decade ago. Now in a different era, the Pirates must beat Class 4’s preeminent program and its stubbornly effective option offense to earn another title shot.
Platte County’s losses this season came to Class 5 semifinalist and No. 1 ranked Staley and Kearney — a Class 4 state finalist each of the past two years. Webb City will be the next perennial powerhouse on a tough schedule that potentially readied the Pirates for this challenge.
“They’re good. You’re talking about the No. 1 team in the state who is used to being here,” Utz said. “We just need to go have fun, go play. It’s what we’ve been doing all year. We’ve played some really good teams; Webb City is right there with the best of them — if not the best. These guys haven’t backed down from a challenge yet, so it gives us a chance to really kind of test where we’re at.
“You have to go through Webb City to get a state title, so now’s our chance.”