Bill Utz paused his postgame speech and instructed Platte County’s players to turn around and take a look to the far end of the field at Pirate Stadium.
Platte County’s veteran coach forced them to face the reality of another disappointing loss to their biggest rival, watching Kearney’s players celebrate on their field. Despite record-setting days for senior quarterback Justin Mitchell, senior running back Mike McNair and junior wide receiver John Watts, the Pirates fell behind big and couldn’t quite complete a comeback in a 42-39 loss Friday, Oct. 14.
Coming off a loss to Staley, Kearney won a fifth straight in the series with Platte County, captured the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage for Class 4 District 8 play and regained the No. 1 ranking in the final Missouri media state rankings of the regular season. Platte County dropped to 6-3 and now must hope to earn a rematch in three weeks with the defending state champions.
“We thought we would get their very best, and we feel like we did,” Utz said. “They gave us their very best. They’re a good team. They won a state title last year. You don’t forget to do that all of a sudden. They’re good, and if we do what we’re supposed to do, we will see them again.”
Kearney went ahead 42-24 on quarterback Anthony Pritzel’s second touchdown run with 9 minutes, 1 seconds to play.
Platte County scored on each of its next two drives sandwiched around a rare defensive stop to provide the faintest glimmer of hope. Mitchell threw his third and fourth touchdown passes of the game to sophomore wide receiver Dylan Gilbert — the first on wide open look late over the middle and the second on an acrobatic grab in the back right corner of the end zone with 1:39 to go.
After a two-point conversion pass to Gilbert, Platte County came within 42-39 with a chance at an onside kick. The Pirates appeared to recover, but officials ruled a player touched the ball before it traveled the necessary 10 yards.
Pritzel ran for a first down on second and long with a tackle-breaking effort all too familiar on a frustrating night for a defense that has allowed 35 points or more in all three losses this season. Pritzel totaled 160 yards on the ground and 236 passing, providing Kearney with offense to make up for a usually stout defensive unit that allowed more than 28 points for the first time this season.
“We’re not going to quit. The kids don’t quit. That’s not our kids,” Utz said. “They’re going to keep trying as hard as they possibly can to give effort. They gave us another chance, even as bad as things were.”
Platte County totaled up 528 yards of offense and outgained the Bulldogs by 70 yards, but the Pirates couldn’t overcome a pair of costly turnovers and a botched field goal try after failing to score on first-and-goal from the 1 in the third quarter.
McNair ran for 90 yards on 20 carries, passing the great RB Miller for second in school history for rushing yards in the process. The three-year starter now has 3,272 and trails only Zach Sherman on the program’s all-time list.
Mitchell threw for a career-high 420 yards, passing the 300-yard mark in a single game for the second time and first time since his sophomore year. Despite missing seven games due to injury last season, he became the first in Platte County history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a career, and at 5,085, the athletic right-hander moved past Brandon Gutshall for the top spot in the school records.
Ten of Mitchell’s 27 completions went to Watts, who might have set a school record with 235 yards receiving in the game. He scored twice in a wild back-and-forth second quarter that left Kearney with a 28-24 advantage.
“Our offense has been doing stuff all year,” Utz said. “They’ve been putting up good numbers all year. In their defense, they stopped our run so we went to the pass. They gave up some opportunities, and we took advantage of that.
“We’re happy with the way that we performed but not with what happened.”
In the end, Platte County didn’t make enough stops and didn’t take advantage of the ones they did get.
The Pirates opened with the ball and went three-and-out with a fumble-sack on the first play and a near interception on the second play. Kearney punted the ball back but sacked Mitchell on the next play and forced a fumble, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the 15.
Three plays later, Kearney took a 7-0 lead — the first of five lead changes in the first half.
A 42-yard pass to Watts on the next possession set up a 10-yard touchdown run for McNair, and Platte County took its first lead early in the second quarter. After a Kearney punt hit a referee when the ball appeared headed into the end zone for a touchback, the Pirates drove 96 yards, capped with a 41-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Watts on a double move.
Then Kearney picked up the pace on offense and scored on back-to-back four-play drives to take the lead back at 21-14. Both possessions ended with short touchdown runs but included big pass plays to senior wide receiver Jess Davis, who totaled 200 yards on 11 catches.
Kearney notched 20 first downs and averaged 5.4 yards per rushing attempt while dominating the time of possession.
“We have to make tackles,” Utz said.
Platte County responded again with a 24-yard field goal from Parker Lacina and then a needed three-and-out.
After a short punt, the Pirates went 53 yards on five plays with Watts accounting for the final 39 on his second touchdown catch of the first half with 2:03 left before the break. They couldn’t hold the lead with Davis hauling in an acrobatic catch along the right edge of the end zone for a 23-yard score a minute and a half later — a short drive aided when the official flagged Platte County’s kicking unit for holding during Kearney’s return of the kickoff after Watts’ touchdown catch.
Kearney (8-1) ended up scoring 21 unanswered after falling behind for the final time.
Platte County still trailed by just two possessions when Mitchell led a long drive into the red zone late in the third quarter. McNair ran the ball down to the 1, nearly reaching the ball over the pylon for a needed touchdown. Kearney stuffed the next three run plays, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty forced the Pirates into a medium-range field goal try.
Carter Nugent didn’t handle the snap, and the former quarterback rolled out and completed a pass for 9 yards to Hunter Tongate, which left Platte County well short of the end zone.
Kearney didn’t score off the resulting possession, but Pirates junior safety Kobe Cummings failed to field a long Kearney punt while backpedaling, a fumble the Bulldogs recovered at the Platte County 25.
Kearney needed just six plays to score on another short field and take a 42-24 lead.
“We should’ve scored down there on the inch line. You’ve got to score that,” Utz said. “You can’t give them the ball in field goal range.”
Platte County went into desperation mode, and despite Mitchell’s big performance, the Pirates came up one needed possession short.
Kearney kneeled out the final seconds of the win and then celebrated for the second straight year with the Highway 92 Showdown traveling trophy. The Bulldogs haven’t lost to Platte County since 2012, which coincides with the Pirates’ most recent trip to the playoffs, and that streak includes a two-game sweep last season.
On the way to a Class 4 state championship, Kearney decimated Platte County without Mitchell in the regular season and the District 8 title game.
The Pirates’ and their talented senior class with players like Mitchell, McNair, wide receiver TJ Guillory (10 catches, 95 yards), safety Kevin Neal and offensive linemen Casey Jumps, Austin Gammill and Derek Kohler starting for three years have just one chance left to end the futility. That will only come if both teams can make it back to the district title game.
Platte County ends up with the No. 2 seed and plays No. 7 Winnetonka (1-8) for the second time in three weeks on Friday, Oct. 21 — this one at Pirate Stadium. The Pirates won 44-6 at North Kansas City District Stadium the week ahead of Kearney.
The winner between Platte County and Winnetonka plays either No. 3 seed Smithville and No. 6 seed St. Joseph Benton in a semifinal.
Kearney would be a very likely district championship game foe, but a rematch would result in a road trip to Kearney, Mo. with a playoff spot on the line. In addition to losing homefield advantage, Platte County missed a chance to earn a share of the Suburban Conference Blue Division title, ultimately finishing third at 3-2, and now enters the postseason as No. 4 in the state according to the final Class 4 Missouri media poll but second in its own district.
“We’ve got to get rid (of this loss),” Utz said. “We saw some things we can fix and get better. Hopefully, we can get those things taken care of and put that behind us. Obviously, districts start next week. Regular season is over, and now you move forward and try to get a positive.
“They come in ranked 2; we were 3 and lost by three points — pretty close.”