Platte County’s record-setting seniors couldn’t push the Pirates back into the playoffs last season.
Despite losing seven three-year starters from a loaded class, Platte County’s returning starters have no desire to take a step back. The Pirates want to finally make the breakthrough after going 25-10 from 2014 to 2016 and losing to Kearney in each of the past two Class 4 District 8 title games.
Platte County senior stars Dakota Schmidt, Kobe Cummings, John Watts and Matt Blaha were part of an 8-4 campaign a year ago, which included a 49-0 pasting of eventual Class 4 state champion Harrisonville in the regular season. While a bunch of the big names won’t be back, the Pirates will welcome the doubts of their chances to get back to the district final and possibly go further.
“It’s definitely different,” said Cummings, a safety who made 67 tackles to go with two interceptions, a fumble recovery and five passes defensed last year. “I feel like that the experience that group had helped with the kids coming into the program, but the senior class now is really stepping up well.
“I think we have a lot of kids that are going to be slept on, and I think as a team we’re going to be slept on. But that’s all right. We’re just going to keep working hard.”
Platte County ended up No. 7 in the final Class 4 Missouri Football Coaches Association despite a disappointing conclusion to the careers of a noteworthy group.
The senior class included Platte County’s all-time leading passer Justin Mitchell (5,563 yards and 59 touchdowns), leading receiver TJ Guillory (129 receptions) and second-leading rusher Mike McNair (3,516 yards). In addition, offensive linemen Casey Jumps, Derek Kohler and Austin Gammill started 35 games together, and defensive back Kevin Neal recorded a program-best 14 interceptions in his three-year career — seven as a senior.
Mitchell, Guillory, McNair, Kohler and Neal were Class 4 all-state picks as seniors. For all of the statistics, the group didn’t end a lengthy losing streak to Kearney, including four losses the last two seasons, and the wins will remain tough to come by with the schedule including a difficult stretch of vs. Staley, at Harrisonville, vs. Belton and vs. Liberty.
“I think if we have everything put together, we’ll be ready for anybody,” Cummings said.
Of the 11 returning starters, eight were on defense in 2016, but a few were moved to try and restock the offense.
Platte County averaged nearly 40 points per game but will no longer be able to rely on the penchant for Mitchell and McNair to produce needed big plays. Tanner Clarkson, a 6-foot-1 senior, takes over as the starting quarterback after going 9 for 13 for 97 yards with one touchdown and one interception in limited backup duty as a junior. He threw three passes in a blowout of Ruskin as a sophomore.
The returning wideouts should ease the transition for Clarkson, who will be less of a running threat than Mitchell.
Watts, a 6-foot-4 track star, finished second to Guillory in receptions (40) and yards (799) but led Platte County in touchdown catches with 11 as a junior, while junior Dylan Gilbert emerged last year as a dangerous third option with 34 catches for 425 yards and five touchdowns. Devin Richardson (one catch, 22 yards) and Kyle Arnold — both seniors — should see more reps in the rotation, while senior Gavin Hardman (moved over from linebacker) and junior Adel Freitek should comprise the running back rotation.
Blaha, a left guard, is the only returning starter on the offensive line, while senior Trevor Tietz (center), junior Glen Gammill (left tackle), junior Reid Sutter (right tackle) and sophomore Max Renner (right guard) likely join him in Platte County’s starting lineup. Gammill moves over from defensive tackle to take over Kohler’s spot.
While the offensive line will be developing to start the season, the potentially pass-heavy offense gives the lineman a simple formula to try and follow.
“A lot of things have been looking good,” Blaha said. “Tanner has a really good arm, so if we give him a few good seconds, then we’re going to be good. We’ve got a really good wide receiver corps; that’s for sure.”
Without Gammill, the defensive line still returns five experienced players to form what could be a solid rotation.
Michael Smith, a senior, missed time last year with injuries but showed flashes of his potential with 42 tackles (three for loss) and team-highs of four sacks and 14 hurries. In addition, junior Peyton Stoner (28 tackles, 1½ sacks) and senior Sage Smart (21 tackles) will be starting for a second straight year, while seniors Chase Blankenship (14 tackles, one sack) and Matthew Knopp provide the depth.
Schmidt returns after leading Platte County with 112 tackles to go with three sacks and two fumble recoveries — both going for touchdowns. Nathan Martinez, a junior who had 28 tackles in limited action last season, joins him at the inside linebacker position.
The secondary will include five players, although Cummings and senior Hunter Tongate will serve in a hybrid safety/linebacker role. Cummings will be a third-year starter who missed time early last year due to injury, while Tongate finally finds a home after contributing at running back, wide receiver and defensive back the past two years.
Without Neal, JP Post, a senior, will be in his second full year as a starter with 43 tackles, two interceptions and a blocked punt for a touchdown last year, and juniors Cade McNicholas and Blake Reynolds in the running to man the other side. Jackson Phan, a senior, is the top option at free safety after making six catches as a reserve wide receiver last year.
Platte County even returns kicking specialist Parker Lacina, who made the media all-state team as a junior. He holds school records for longest field goal (53 yards in 2015) and career field goals (26) and went 11 of 18 on field goals for Platte County last year with a long of 49 while hitting 41 of 43 extra points.
Lacina will also take on punting duties again after filling in as a sophomore after Mitchell missed the final seven games with a shoulder injury in his junior year.