KEARNEY, Mo. — Platte County forged one final wild comeback bid when faced with nearly overwhelming circumstances in a must-win situation.
Unlike many others during the past three seasons, this one didn’t end with the desired result. Kearney held on for a 58-41 win on Friday, Nov. 4 in an adventurous Class 4 District 8 championship game at Kearney High School, the Pirates doomed to a second straight disappointing runner-up finish with another loss to their arch nemesis.
Platte County’s talented senior class went 25-10 the last three years but never earned a coveted district title and playoff return. Hopeful after a close loss to Kearney in the regular season finale, the Pirates’ endured a disastrous second quarter and trailed 34-6 at halftime before three times cutting the deficit to 10 points in the second half.
“We just don’t stop fighting. We’re fighters. We didn’t want to lose like cowards,” Platte County quarterback Justin Mitchell said. “We wanted to leave the program better than we found it, and we think we did that.”
Platte County’s senior class included seven three-year starters who ended their career with record-setting numbers.
Mitchell started three years and threw for 386 yards and two touchdowns in his final game, topping the 300-yard mark for the third time in his career and second time against Kearney this year. He added 75 yards on the ground and two more scores.
Always a dual threat, Mitchell took over as the all-time leading passer in Platte County history, breaking Brandon Gutshall’s record for career yards (4,874) in the first loss to Kearney. Mitchell finished his career with 5,563 yards and a record 59 career touchdown passes, three better than Gutshall.
Mitchell missed the final seven games of his junior season due to a shoulder injury.
TJ Guillory caught eight passes for 140 yards and a touchdown against Kearney. He finished his career with 129 receptions, most in Platte County history after passing Todd Jaros’ mark of 120 in a Class 4 District 8 semifinal win against Smithville the previous week.
Guillory’s 51 catches this year were a career high.
With a season-low 7 yards rushing, senior running back Mike McNair came up just 44 yards short of the sixth 1,500-yard season in Platte County history. His career-high 1,456 brought his career total to 3,516, second only to Zach Sherman’s school-record mark of 7,727.
McNair, who scored a team-high 22 touchdowns this season, passed Joe Brown, Krae Kelso, Joe Henson and RB Miller on the record list with his second straight 1,000-yard campaign.
Kevin Neal, a three-year starter at defensive back, made 17 tackles in his final game, bringing his season total to 95, and half of his school-record 14 career interceptions came this season.
Austin Gammill, Casey Jumps and Derek Kohler — the last of Platte County’s seven third-year seniors — started 35 consecutive games on the offensive line. Jumps was the center, Gammill a guard and Kohler a tackle during a record-setting run of consistency up front.
“They’re a great group of kids,” Platte County coach Bill Utz said.
Platte County rallied in 2015 to reach the District 8 title game opposite of Kearney.
This season, the Pirates expected to be in the rematch after a 42-39 loss in the first meeting three weeks earlier. Last season, the Bulldogs overwhelmed an undermanned Platte County team in a 43-3 district title game win on the way to a state championship.
In each of the two district championship games, Kearney — winners of six straight now in the series — built a big lead with a momentous second quarter, but this time, Mitchell was in charge of the offense to lead the potential comeback.
Platte County took the opening kick of the third quarter and needed just five plays, two of them lengthy completions to 6-foot-4 junior wide receiver John Watts, and 36 seconds to score a touchdown on a 9-yard run from Mitchell. Kearney answered with the third of Hunter Adkison’s three field goals to put the lead at 37-13.
Nine plays later, McNair scored from 1 yard out after a 17-yard catch for sophomore Dylan Gilbert (season-highs of eight catches and 102 yards) put the Pirates on the goal line, and a two-point pass to Guillory made it a two-possession game for the first time since midway through the second quarter.
Kearney quarterback Anthony Pritzel, who threw for 304 yards and six touchdowns and ran for 125, then made his only mistake. Facing pressure from junior safety Kobe Cummings, Pritzel lofted a pass over the middle of the field, and Platte County junior cornerback JP Post picked off the errant throw with no receiver for the Bulldogs in the area.
With 4:52 left in the third quarter, Mitchell lofted a pass to Watts, who outjumped a defender for a 13-yard touchdown — his team-high 11th of the season — to trim the lead to 37-27.
“We challenged them at halftime to keep chipping away at it. I didn’t think we’d chip away as fast as we did in the third quarter,” Utz said. “And then we’re in a situation where we’re only down 10. We had tons of time and still had opportunities.”
Platte County missed a two-point try and didn’t end up getting any closer the rest of the way, despite the chances.
The Pirates had a three-and-out after a punt on Kearney’s next possession, and Mitchell’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Guillory behind Kearney’s defense late in the third quarter again made the margin 10, this time at 44-34. Sage Smart, a junior defensive tackle, blocked and recovered Adkison’s fourth field goal attempt of the game early in the fourth quarter, only for the Pirates to punt on the ensuing possession.
Pritzel’s fourth touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Jess Davis, game-highs of 11 catches and 206 yards, put the lead back at 17 with 8:57 to go.
A minute later, Mitchell ran in from 4 yards out a play after he hit Guillory for a 33-yard completion. Down 51-41, the Pirates didn’t have another salvo left. Kearney allowed 39 and 41 points in two games against the Pirates this year after the Bulldogs hadn’t allowed more than 38 in any other game dating back to the 2013 Class 5 playoffs.
“We came out and gave our all,” Mitchell said. “We knew this could be our last game, and it ended up being our last game.”
Platte County held the ball twice more, the first drive ending in Mitchell’s second interception. The second try included a holding penalty on third-and-7 that occurred behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in what amounted to a 25-yard mark off.
Facing fourth-and-32, Mitchell’s final pass fell incomplete, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty put Kearney at the Pirates’ 6. Patrick Connery scored on a 6-yard run two plays later to put the finishing touches on the win.
Platte County drove the field one last time but couldn’t put up a final touchdown, the careers of the accomplished senior class ending on an incomplete pass from the Bulldogs’ 6.
“That’s what’s hard for them that you have to end this way,” Utz said. “There’s a lot of special kids in there. There are a lot of them special to me personally, and I don’t want to see them leave.”
In the end, Platte County never overcame the futility of the second quarter.
The Pirates ran just 10 plays total in 12 minutes — the first and last field goals for junior kicker Parker Lacina. In between, Kearney scored 24 unanswered with the help of a Pirates’ penalty and three turnovers forced.
After Pritzel hit Jess Davis for a 6-yard touchdown to put Kearney up 17-3, a holding penalty called back Guillory’s 97-yard touchdown on the ensuing kickoff return. Instead of being back down seven, the Pirates started in their own territory, and Mitchell threw a costly interception Pritzel made the turnover count with a 4-yard touchdown pass.
Jumps and Mitchell miscommunicated on a shotgun snap two plays later, and Kearney recovered to set up another short field. After a 20-yard field goal from Adkison, Kearney successfully executed a pooch kick, which Platte County mishandled to allow the Bulldogs to recover, leading to Pritzel’s fourth touchdown pass of the first half and Platte County drove 49 yards with two completions to senior wide receiver Carter Nugent plus two pass interference penalties just to get Lacina a try from 36 yards out. His kick bounced off the crossbar and went over to provide the slightest bit of hope for good fortune after halftime.
“It’s what we’ve seen in the past,” Utz said. “We know for a fact Kearney plays very well when they start getting momentum. Unfortunately, we gave them that momentum. They didn’t do anything special to get ahold of it, but they did a great job of holding on to it.”
Platte County went into the second half needing to play nearly perfect, and not all stories come to the desired conclusion. The Pirates developed back into a state power with help from the outgoing seniors, ending the regular season with a No. 4 ranking in the Missouri media poll but with the second seed in their district.
In the end, Platte County went 8-4 in back-to-back seasons but ended up trying to balance the strides of the program with the disappointment of another season-ending loss to Kearney.
“Just the brotherhood we had playing with each other since fourth grade, it’s just something you’re never going to forget,” Kohler said.