NORTH KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The second half against Winnetonka offered a chance to start looking ahead, and Platte County coach Bill Utz didn’t mind.
Immediately following the Pirates’ 44-6 win Friday, Oct. 7, he instructed his players to start putting the full focus on the showdown with Kearney. Three touchdown passes from senior quarterback Justin Mitchell to senior TJ Guillory buried the Griffins at North Kansas City District Stadium, and a safety late in the second quarter highlighted a staunch defensive effort in a much-needed blowout.
Platte County (6-2) won a third straight after enduring a five-game stretch of tough matchups, a brief reprieve before meeting up with its biggest rival in a game loaded with implications.
“We took a deep breath, this one’s over and now we start preparing for the next one,” Utz said. “We’ve got to try to make it as much of a normal game as possible, but it’s not a normal game.”
Platte County needed the win against Winnetonka (1-7) to set the stage.
Due to a Week 5 loss at Belton, the Pirates needed to win out in Suburban Conference Blue Division play to have a shot of a three-way share of the league title. That includes beating Kearney for the first time since 2012 in a matchup now officially known as the Highway 92 Showdown, given the name last year along with a traveling trophy annually awarded to the winner.
If those stakes weren’t enough, Smithville’s loss to Chillicothe last week assured Platte County and Kearney of the top two seeds in the Class 4 District 8 standings. The winner Friday, Oct. 14 at Pirate Stadium will take the top seed and the right to host the first three playoff games, which could very likely include a rematch between the two three weeks after the regular season finale.
“I’m not going to lie,” Utz said. “We’ve been talking about it without looking past Winnetonka. It’s obvious; it’s right there. And I’m sure (Kearney) is doing the same thing. It’s just got a different feel to it because the games are potentially so close together.”
Platte County enters after remaining No. 3 in the most recent Class 4 media poll with Kearney (7-1) dropping to No. 2 but still earning six of 14 first-place votes after a 28-10 loss on Friday, Oct. 7 against Staley, the same Falcons who handed Platte County its first loss of the season. Hannibal (7-1) took eight first-place votes and moved ahead of the previous unanimous No. 1 by one point.
The clear No. 3 in those rankings, Platte County didn’t stumble in a chance against its first opponent with a losing record since Week 2 (Oak Park).
Pirates senior running back Mike McNair did fumble on the third play, setting up Winnetonka with an early chance. The Griffins ended up going three-and-out, and McNair atoned for the early mistake with a 60-yard touchdown run around left end.
The rout was on from there with McNair rolling up 168 yards on 17 carries and eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for a second straight season in the process.
“It was good to see Mike get the touchdown on that run,” Utz said. “He’s done a really good job all year of ball control, and it was kind of just a weird play. But it was nice to see him come back, flush that play and be able to continue carrying the load.”
Winnetonka failed to reach Platte County territory in each of its next three drives with just one first down in limited possession.
Each of the Pirates’ three corresponding drives ended with touchdown passes from Mitchell to Guillory — each getting progressively longer. First, Guillory caught a 7-yarder over the middle before adding a 21-yarder late in the first quarter.
Early in the second, Guillory grabbed a pass in the right flat and rumbled in from 23 yards out with key blocks from Carter Nugent and Jacob Mundell springing him to the inside of the pylon. The final score prompted Nugent, a senior wide receiver, to jokingly ask Guillory to share some of the spotlight.
Guillory finished with three catches for 51 yards and increasing his touchdown total on the season to eight — five in the last three games.
Platte County’s next points came from the defense when two defenders sandwiched Winnetonka quarterback Ben Giebler on a run play, causing a fumble. The ball sat spinning in the end zone for a few brief moments before the Griffins managed to corral it for a safety rather than a touchdown.
Overall, Winnetonka managed just 133 yards of offense — most in the second half against the reserves. Nathan Martinez and Gavin Hardman led Platte County with five tackles apiece, senior linebacker Austin Shoemaker collected a sack and senior safety Kevin Neal grabbed his seventh interception of the season, nearly returning the pick for a score on the final play of the first half.
JP Post, a junior cornerback, blocked a punt in the end zone at the end of the opening drive of the second half, setting up a short field. His second block in three weeks set Platte County up with a short field and senior reserve running back Jamil Jones cashed in the possession with a 1-yard touchdown for the Pirates’ final points.
Platte County ended up just missing its third shutout of the season after allowing a fourth quarter touchdown, and the defense has allowed nine points or fewer in five of six victories. The Pirates gave up 55 in a 13-point loss to Staley and 35 in a five-point loss to Belton, which Kearney beat 23-21 two weeks ago.
Kearney has scored 30 or more in each of its six other wins, while Platte County’s difficult schedule, which also included Class 5 Liberty, has produced all eight games with at least 30 points.
“We’ve played some pretty good teams,” Utz said. “We’ve done some good things, and I think we’ve grown as the season has gone on. I think we’re better now than when we started.”
Mitchell finished with 203 yards passing on just eight completions with Platte County attempting to involve some of the lesser-used weapons on the offense. The strategy led to an interception in the first half on a ball that slipped out of Mitchell’s hands but also included a highlight play when the quarterback took a shot on a first-down play while delivering a long pass down the home sideline to Mundell, a senior who turned his first catch of the year into an 80-yard touchdown.
Platte County went up 37-0 on the play before Jones’ rushing touchdown made it 44-0.
“It’s good to get more people in, get more people experience just in case,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell didn’t play in either matchup between Kearney and Platte County last year after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in practice following a win against Winnetonka.
Kearney won a pair of blowouts, first in Blue Division play (36-0) and then again in the District 8 final (43-3) on the way to a state championship. Platte County has lost four straight in the series, and the last victory against the Bulldogs in 2012 also coincides with the Pirates’ most recent trip to the playoffs.
This matchup with a traveling trophy and league title at stake will be big with Royals broadcaster Rex Hudler expected to be in attendance, the funds raised from commemorative T-shirts and other promotions slated to go to his charity — “Team Up For Down Syndrome.”
The issue comes in trying to avoid all those distractions while also remembering the top two seeds in District 8 will be heavy favorites to play again three weeks later with even more at stake.
This also marks the only guaranteed chance for the current crop of heralded seniors to beat Kearney, one final aspect of a game with so many potentially distracting storylines.
“We just need to do our job,” Mitchell said. “Each person needs to focus on their own job, and we can’t focus on the big picture. We just have to do our job, try not to do anybody else’s job.
“We’re just coming into the game to get a win. We just want to get a win.”
Added Guillory, “This game matters, but at the same time, what really matters is the (postseason) coming up. I just know we all want this game really bad, and we just need to get it.”