LIBERTY, Mo. — So many times this season, JP Post came close to blocking a kick.
When the Platte County junior cornerback finally reached out and flattened the punt of Thomas Henrichs in the third quarter Friday, Sept. 23, the wait for a gamechanging special teams play finally ended. Post scrambled to his feet and eventually corralled the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown, giving the Pirates the lead back on Liberty.
Platte County didn’t trail again on the way to a 38-30 victory at Liberty High School — the first game played on the school’s campus in more than 30 years.
“I just got closer and closer. I knew it was going to come one of those times,” said Post, who also finished with a pair of tackles (one for loss) in addition to his first career touchdown despite briefly leaving the game in the first half with an apparent minor neck injury. “He just stayed in the pocket, held on too long and I just got there in time.”
Platte County (4-2) stunned the overflow crowd at the still-developing stadium, scoring 17 unanswered in the second half before allowing a late score.
Liberty (5-1) entered unbeaten and ranked No. 4 in Class 5, seemingly a strong candidate to hand the Pirates a second straight loss and drop them to .500. Instead, Platte County senior running back Mike McNair and junior wide receiver John Watts scored two touchdowns apiece — the former totaling 191 yards rushing on 30 carries, the latter turning both of his catches into big-play scores.
Platte County continued a back-and-forth stretch of difficult games, which started with a shootout loss to Class 5-ranked Staley and also included a blowout of then No. 2 Harrisonville (Class 4) and a disappointing 35-30 loss at Belton. The Pirates jumped back up to No. 3 in the Class 4 Missouri media poll from No. 5 following the minor upset of Liberty, the win coming ahead of a test against Class 4 Raytown South (3-3 and ranked No. 1 in the District 6 standings).
The question remains on which Platte County team represents the most likely to show up this week at home, at Winnetonka in Week 8 and vs. No. 1 Kearney in the regular season finale.
“I don’t know why, to be honest with you,” Utz said of the Pirates overcoming adversity this time around. “I think it’s a situation of where they believed what they are doing. They understood they could get it fixed. They understood that they had to do some things in the second half to not have that sick feeling that they had last week.
“You know, it was a real simple, easy talk at half. They were able to get their adjustments and implement them.”
The win against Liberty came at a key juncture and kept Platte County at No. 3 in the current District 8 standings with the Pirates possibly needing to stay at two losses to earn one of the top two seeds in the eight-team field.
Platte County appeared in control late in the first half after McNair scored on back-to-back drives to put the Pirates back ahead at 21-13. Liberty punted on its next possession, and a holding penalty backed Platte County up with just more than 2 minutes left in the half.
On the next snap, officials called Platte County quarterback Justin Mitchell for intentional grounding in the end zone, starting a disastrous chain of plays for the Pirates.
The safety closed Liberty within 21-15, and after the resulting free kick, Henrichs — the Blue Jays quarterback — threw a 44-yard touchdown on the next play to Tanner Swenson, their second scoring connection of the half. The Pirates were suddenly down 22-21 with just 1:41 left in the half.
Mitchell led an apparent response touchdown drive but an offensive pass interference on a toe-tapping catch from Watts in the back of the end zone negated the score. Mitchell then completed a 22-yard pass to TJ Guillory down to the Liberty 4 when the senior quarterback inadvertently kneeled instead of spiking, costing the Pirates the final 4 seconds and a shot at another play.
For the second straight week, Platte County went into halftime down and playing against the momentum.
“We just knew the defense needed to get a stop, and the offense needed to keep scoring,” McNair. “That’s what we did.”
Platte County’s defense responded behind junior linebacker Dakota Schmidt (12 tackles) and junior safety Kobe Cummings (11 tackles).
Liberty went three-and-out on each of its first three possessions in the third quarter. The second resulted in the blocked punt-touchdown for Post to put the Pirates up 28-22, and the third led to a 35-yard field goal for junior kicker Parker Lacina, extending the advantage to two possessions.
The lone first down Platte County allowed in the third quarter came on a 39-yard pass from Henrichs to Swenson plus a roughing the passer penalty. The next three runs from Robert Rawie went for negative yards, and the record-setting senior finished with 144 yards on 33 carries.
After a 16-yard run from Rawie came up short of a first down, Platte County struck the final blow early in the fourth quarter. Mitchell found Watts uncovered in the left seam, and the 6-foot-5 junior speedster ran away from the defense for an 82-yard touchdown.
“Just don’t fall, run my hardest and don’t get caught from behind,” said Watts, now with 15 catches on the season with six going for touchdowns — catching at least one in five of six games this season.
Liberty answered with the third touchdown completion between Henrichs and Swenson plus a two-point conversion to draw within one score, and after a blocked field goal attempt with 4:22 left, the Blue Jays would have one final chance.
That drive ended when Platte County junior defensive end Michael Smith buried Henrichs as he threw a third down pass for an incompletion. The fourth down pass also went incomplete, and McNair ran for a trio of first downs on the final drive to close out the victory.
“I’m just patient and continue to hit the holes as hard as I can, and eventually, they open up like always,” McNair said.
Watts opened the game’s scoring after the first of Liberty’s special teams miscues.
Drew Mackie failed to field a punt after Platte County went three-and-out on the game’s opening possession, and Pirates senior safety Kevin Neal recovered to give the Pirates the ball at the Blue Jays’ 42. After a run of 2 yards from McNair, Mitchell hit Watts behind the defense for a 40-yard touchdown.
“When he becomes the aggressor as a wide receiver, he’s really good,” Utz said. “It’s fun to watch him make plays because he’s such a target. It looks like a lot of parts are moving, but he’s pretty smooth.”
Liberty scored the next two touchdowns, the first on a 20-yard pass from Henrichs to Swenson on a fourth and goal from the 20. Rawie’s 12-yard burst late in the second quarter put the Blue Jays up for the first time before the Pirates’ defense tightened up behind sacks for Smith and senior lineman Austin Gammill and the play of Schmidt, Cummings and junior defensive linemen Sage Smart and Chase Blankenship against the run.
Schmidt recovered Rawie’s fumble on the second play of the second quarter, and another special teams gaffe led to a score.
Liberty blocked a 50-yard attempt from Lacina, but a roughing the snapper call gave Platte County a first down. On the next play, McNair sprinted 18 yards untouched for his first score, and he added a 30-yarder on the next drive on the way to his fifth 100-yard game of the season and his biggest single-game total so far.
But adversity would strike again, but this time, Platte County responded.
The Pirates struggled in the second half in its two losses but looked the part of playoff contender this time around. The three straight Suburban Conference Blue Division matchups left will now determine if a shared league title can be a part of a prelude to the postseason for a proven group of talented seniors and a developing core of junior standouts.
“What team are we? I would hope it’s this one,” Utz said after the win against Liberty. “I think when they were able to look at themselves in the mirror a little bit this week and realized that’s the team they want to be they were able to put that in place.”