Special to The Citizen
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Park Hill South wanted the Class 5 District 7 championship to provide validation for a comeback season.
Not only did the Panthers score an impressive 37-6 win against defending state champion Fort Osage, they made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The historic run continues in this week’s quarterfinal round for a team that went 2-8 a year ago, entering the season with few expectations.
Park Hill South has now won eight straight since its lone loss of the season so far.
“We were 2-8 last year, so this is a great building block not just for this season, but for future seasons in our program,” Park Hill South coach Mike Sharp said. “It kind of validates for our kids that hard work pays off.”
Park Hill South (10-1) scored the first 37 points of the matchup, taking full control after executing and recovering an onside kick to bury the Indians in the second half.
Fort Osage (5-6) rallied late in its season to earn District 7’s No. 2 seed, then beat William Chrisman for the second time this year to reach the title game. The Indians were overwhelmed in the final 48 minutes of their season by an experienced team realizing its potential.
In the first half, Fort Osage committed three turnovers and failed to cross midfield on offense until the very end of the second quarter.
Park Hill South couldn’t take full advantage. Two of the Panthers’ first three drives ended with field goal attempts, and after Stephen Personelli connected on the first to put Fort Osage down 3-0, Park Hill South senior defensive back Jake Springer continued his breakout season with a fumble recovery and return.
Set up at the Indians’ 35, Park Hill South then scored on fullback Caeden Bowen’s 11-yard touchdown run.
Springer finished with seven tackles and added team-highs of five catches for 118 yards and another touchdown. He continues to be a highlight-reel player on both sides of the ball, taking his play to another level since the loss of fellow senior standout defensive back/wide receiver Dillon Thomas to a torn ACL in early September.
“He’s a tremendous football (player), especially since we lost Dillon,” Sharp said. “He’s done a great job of stepping up. He’s one of our leaders; he’s our guy.”
Despite a missed field goal, Park Hill South went up 16-0 at halftime after a 58-yard drive late in the second quarter. Emanuel Butler, a senior tailback, remained a focal point of the run game since his return from injury late in the year, and he capped the 10-play march with a 1-yard plunge.
Butler ran for 92 yards total and two scores, while senior quarterback Zach Suchanick totaled a team-high 97 yards on the ground. Bowen had four carries for 13 yards.
“We’re real close; we’re always together and what people don’t realize is that it’s more than just football,” Butler said of the Panthers’ diverse backfield. “You gotta hang out outside of football so you can become closer in the game.”
On Park Hill South’s first offensive snap of the second half, Butler took a handoff and raced down the left sideline for a 55-yard touchdown and a 23-0 lead. Personelli then executed an onside kick the Panthers recovered at midfield.
Suchanick immediately hit Springer for a 50-yard touchdown — their second score in the first 1 minute, 34 seconds of the third quarter.
“Jake is just a guy you can throw it up to and you know he is going to make a play,” said Suchanick, who threw for 154 yards on eight completions.
Suchanick added the final touchdown on Park Hill South’s next play. He ran 57 yards for a score, giving the Panthers three scores on the first three snaps of the second half.
Park Hill South has now scored at least 35 points in four straight games, while the defense has allowed just 16 points per game.
“The defense is lights out right now; they’re fun to watch,” Sharp said.
Park Hill South hasn’t lost since a heartbreaking finish against rival Park Hill, which survived for a 24-23 victory in Week 3 after stopping the Panthers on a late 2-point conversion try.
Since then, Park Hill South has completed an undefeated run to earn Suburban Conference Red Division and Class 5 District 7 titles. The Panthers return to the quarterfinals for the first time since their most recent playoff trip in 2010 when they lost to Staley.
To reach the state semifinals for the first time since 2004, Park Hill South must get past Staley (9-2) this time around. The two teams enter with top 10 rankings, and the Falcons have won five straight without allowing more than 14 points during that span, which includes two shutouts.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11 at North Kansas City District Activities Complex in Kansas City, Mo.
“It’s going to be a big game,” Sharp said. “They’re a top tier program, and somebody that we look forward to playing. At this point in the year, everybody is a big one.”