RIVERSIDE, Mo. — The relationship on the football field between Dillon Thomas and Jake Springer goes back to middle school.
That’s what made the second half of Park Hill South’s season this past fall so difficult and the Wednesday, Feb. 1 signing ceremony at the school so special. Thomas (Northern Illinois) and Springer (U.S. Naval Academy) celebrated their commitments to separate Division I programs together — part of a six-man signing class for the Panthers after their resurgent 2016 ended with a trip to the Class 5 quarterfinals.
“It’s been both of our dreams to play Division I college football,” Springer said, “and now that we both are playing on the biggest stage and highest level, it’s sweet to share the moment.”
An early commit to Northern Illinois in DeKalb, Ill., Thomas entered his senior season with lofty expectations. He formed a potent 1-2 combination in the defensive secondary and at wide receiver with Springer, who continued to sift through collegiate offers throughout the past year.
Thomas played in 3½ games in 2016 for Park Hill South.
Injured in the second half of a win against St. Joseph Central, Thomas ended up diagnosed with a season-ending torn ACL. He made 10 catches for 314 yards — an impressive 31.4 yards per catch — and two touchdowns on offense, while adding seven tackles and one interception on defense.
Thomas underwent surgery to repair the ACL during the season but remained a captain and ardent supporter of his teammates on the sideline.
“I look at it more as motivation,” said Thomas, who expects to be near full strength by this fall and projects first as a defensive back at Northern Illinois. “I’m just ready to be back on the field after tearing my ACL. Coming back from that, I’m just trying to slowly, step by step, get back to what I used to be and hopefully better as I go along.”
With Thomas out, Springer became the focal point of Park Hill South’s offense and a leader on defense.
The Panthers won eight straight, starting with the Central game and culminating with a victory over Fort Osage in the Class 5 District 7 title game. Springer put up team-highs of 48 catches, 673 yards and seven touchdowns, while adding 274 yards rushing and five scores on the ground with coach Mike Sharp finding innovative ways to give his star the ball.
On defense, Springer had 52 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and two touchdowns — one on a punt return.
“Before the season, I was calling him the best safety in the area,” said Thomas, who didn’t end up with any postseason honors due to the early injury. “Then having him step up on offense, that’s a crazy feat.”
Springer received unanimous first team all-state honors from the Missouri media and Missouri Football Coaches Association (MFCA) as a defensive back, while also making the second team as a wide receiver on the coaches’ list.
With plenty of offers after his breakout season, Springer ended up committing to Navy and plans to play safety for the Midshipmen in the American Athletic Conference. Navy is known for its triple option attack on offense and projecting out on defense vs. having limited opportunities on offense for one of the nation’s best mid-major programs was a draw — but not the biggest draw.
“(My commitment) came with the responsibility the academy’s going to teach me and who I’ll become as a man,” Springer said. “I think I’ll better myself as an athlete, as well. Really, (Navy) just hit everywhere on my checklist from an athletic and academic side.”
Four other seniors who contributed to a 10-2 season and the first playoff appearance for Park Hill South since 2010 also made their commitments official.
Zach Suchanick, a two-year starter at quarterback, ended up choosing Division II Quincy in Quincy, Ill. Suchanick benefitted from throwing to his two Division I targets, piling up 1,505 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air but also added 455 yards rushing and nine scores on the ground as a senior.
“It’s really rewarding, and it’s great to see all your friends up there signing with you. It’s a big next step in your life,” said Suchanick, who earned second team All-Suburban Conference Red Division honors as a senior. “Throwing to Dillon Thomas and Jake Springer was probably a dream of many people in our area if they’ve seen them play. I was fortunate enough to have two good dudes to throw the ball up to, and I knew they’d always go get it.
“They helped me continue to the next level, and I can’t wait to do it with new receivers at the next level.”
Payton Ireland and Everett Horton — both versatile defensive players — were all-state selections who signed to the next level.
Headed to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., Ireland made the MFCA all-state second team as a linebacker with 89 tackles (five for loss), three sacks, three fumbles recovered and two fumbles forced in his senior season. He returned two of the three fumbles for touchdowns — both in a blowout loss to Staley in the Class 5 quarterfinals that ended the Panthers’ season.
Horton made the MFCA third team as a defensive back with 79 tackles, one sack, one interception and two fumble recoveries. He inked with Missouri Western in St. Joseph, Mo. to continue his career.
Ireland and Horton ranked 2-3 on Park Hill South’s defense for tackles.
Trace Weatherford gave Park Hill South a third defensive player to sign to the next level. He chose Truman State in Kirksville, Mo. — another in-state D-II school — after recording 55 tackles (four for the Panthers) plus one fumble recovery as a defensive end.