KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Park Hill South’s season ended when Julian Ross broke free for his fourth and longest touchdown run Friday, Nov. 11.
There were still more than 31 minutes left to play in a Class 5 quarterfinal with Staley, but the Panthers had little chance to recover. Yet, three touchdowns in a span of 3 minutes late in the fourth quarter helped define what ended up a momentous run for a program previously mired in mediocrity.
Park Hill South wide receiver Jake Springer and linebacker Payton Ireland — both seniors — provided some final highlights in a 42-21 loss at North Kansas City District Activities Complex. Despite trailing by six touchdowns at halftime, Ireland’s second scoop-and-score fumble recovery with 2:37 left provided the faintest glimmer of hope, which the players held on to until the final seconds ticked away.
“We’re all just close. We were just trying to make it last,” said Ireland, who had a team-high nine tackles. “It’s tough. What, 42-0 at half and trying to come back from that and still support each other. We just tried our best.”
Park Hill South entered the postseason ranked No. 5 in Class 5, according to the Missouri media poll. The Panthers ended up winning eight straight to sweep through the Suburban Conference Red Division and District 7.
The first playoff appearance for Park Hill South since 2010 came to a matching end — a loss to Staley (10-2).
The setting for Park Hill South’s season finale ended up unexpected to some but not to second-year coach Mike Sharp and his staff. No one bothered to tell the seniors they weren’t supposed to be there, either, despite the Panthers having just 11 wins combined in the previous three seasons.
While disappointing, the lopsided loss to Staley, which left players stinging with emotions, didn’t define the season. Instead, the turnaround was encapsulated in the disappointment shown in the tears spilled and hugs handed out among the team after the final whistle.
“We’ve talked over and over with some of those kids. They don’t realize, probably, what they’ve done for our program,” Sharp said. “They’ve shaped it for years to come, or at least we hope so, so we’re in debt to them.”
Considered the best quarterfinal matchup in Class 5, the game ended up being mostly a runaway.
Park Hill South took the opening kickoff and gained a pair of initial first downs before setting up for a 47-yard field goal try. After a Staley offsides penalty, the attempt ended up coming from 42 yards out, but senior Stephen Personelli’s kick went well wide.
Staley yielded just four more first downs the rest of the half while scoring on its first six possessions.
The onslaught started with a 56-yard completion on third-and-8 from Falcons junior quarterback John Raybourn to senior wide receiver Rod Criss II, who stumbled down at the 23. Ross scored on the next play, and he ended up gaining 151 yards and four touchdowns on his first eight carries, finishing with 179 yards on 10 total attempts before going out of the game midway through the second quarter with Staley up 35-0.
“Everything that you don’t want to happen in a quarter of football happened really, really quick,” Sharp said. “The good thing is, through our season, we’ve done that to a lot of teams. Unfortunately, we had it done to us tonight.”
Staley sacked Park Hill South senior quarterback Zach Suchanick (124 yards passing, -4 rushing) three times in the first half. The first two came on successive third downs that led to punts from the Panthers and short touchdown drives for the Falcons.
On Park Hill South’s third punt attempt, Staley blocked the kick and recovered inside the Panthers’ 10. Despite a holding penalty, Ross ran twice for 20 yards to move the lead to 21-0.
Park Hill South then went four-and-out, gambling on a fourth-and-2 at its own 45. Emanuel Butler, a senior running back who totaled 20 yards on 12 carries in his final game, went for just 1 yard on the play.
Ross scored three plays later on a 32-yard run to make it 28-0.
“It’s do-or-die at this point of the season. You’ve got to make something happen,” Sharp said of trying to go for it in a must-win game.
Following Ross’ 63-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter, Park Hill South gained three first downs on its next drive with completions to Springer (team-highs of seven catches for 88 yards). Staley’s Isaiah Russell picked off Suchanick’s pass on the next play, leading to the Falcons’ final touchdown.
Park Hill South opened the second half facing a running clock with Staley putting in the reserves in preparation of the upcoming semifinal.
The odds were fittingly stacked at that point against the Panthers, who endured an emotional one-point loss to rival Park Hill in Week 3 after a failed two-point conversion in the final seconds. Then they lost senior standout defensive back/wide receiver Dillon Thomas for the season one week later after he tore his ACL against St. Joseph Central.
Instead of being doomed to the blowout loss, Park Hill South kept trying to move forward.
Eventually, Springer, the other half of a star tandem with Thomas entering the season, caught a 27-yard touchdown from Suchanick for their final scoring connection of the season. Two minutes later and with 3½ mintues to play, Ireland scooped up a botched snap and ran 20 yards for the first defensive touchdown of his career.
Park Hill South had a little fun and let senior guard Noah Salsbury run on the two-point conversion attempt from the 6 after a penalty. He came up 3 yards short but wildly celebrated anyway despite the Panthers still trailing 42-13 but with the running clock off.
Less than a minute later, Ireland pulled the ball loose again and raced 45 yards for his second touchdown in a span of five plays. Suchanick threw the two-point conversion to senior defensive lineman and sometimes-blocking tight end Wyatt Moore.
“After the first (touchdown), I kind of just dropped the ball and broke down in the end zone because I didn’t think it was going to happen again,” Ireland said. “The second one? It really threw me for a surprise. It certainly made the scoreboard look better.”
Park Hill South planned to go to the 2-minute offense with an onside kick recovery, but that opportunity didn’t arise. Time ran out on a memorable season that concluded with a few more special memories for a senior class that turned around a program, leaving a definitive impression on the players coming back hoping to build on the legacy.