by Michael Smith
For one reason or another, the state quarterfinal game has been a thorn in the side of the Grain Valley football program.
Coming into Friday’s Class 5 quarterfinal contest with Fort Osage, the Eagles had lost in the same round of the playoffs the past three years.
Grain Valley fell to Platte County in 2019 and 2020 and lost to Fort Osage 35-0 in 2021. Could the Eagles reverse their fortunes against the Indians this time around?
Not this time.
Three turnovers and a big kickoff return for a touchdown spoiled yet another state quarterfinal appearance for the Eagles as they fell 29-10 to end the season at 9-3, snapping their eight-game winning streak.
Grain Valley (9-3) got off to a slow start as junior wide Anthony Greco fumbled on the opening kickoff, which was recovered by Fort Osage at the Eagle 38-yard line. Luckily for Grain Valley, the defense was able to prevent the opposition from scoring as Xander Shepherd missed a 35-yard field goal.
Fort Osage still managed to race out to a 13-0 lead thanks to a 67-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Greg Menne to sophomore running back Ryver Peppers, who took advantage of a Grain Valley defender falling down on the play at the 6:20 mark in the first period.
With 5:47 remaining in the first half, Grain Valley quarterback Caleb Larson had the ball knocked out of his hands on a run up the middle and Fort Osage defensive back Roman Tillmon picked up the fumble and returned the ball 14 yards for a score and a 13-point lead.
“You can’t beat yourself against teams like that,” Allie said. “If you make a mistake, teams like that make you pay for it.”
The Eagles responded on the ensuing drive, however. They utilized linebacker Brody Baker and defensive end Jake Allen in the run game, which jump started the offense. That game plan eventually led to a Caleb Larson 7-yard scoring run with 1:58 left to narrow the gap to 13-7.
Larson ended the game completing 7 of his 19 passes for 94 yards. He also had 59 yards on 16 carries.
However, on the ensuing kickoff, place kicker Austin Schmitt had his kick land in the hands of senior Lorenzo Fenner, who is arguably the best kick and punt returner in Missouri. That proved to be costly as the Fort Osage senior returned the ball 90 yards for the score to make it 20-7.
“When I see the ball fly through the air and hit Fenner’s hands, I just think, ‘Oh God. I bet the coach on the other sideline is praying.’ said Fort Osage senior quarterback Greg Menne.
Grain Valley head coach David Allie said Schmitt tried to kick the ball into the end zone for a touchback, but the “ball died.”
“I wish I could say (Schmitt) slipped like he did last year, but we didn’t slip,” Allie said of last year’s regular season game against Fort in which Fenner returned a kickoff to the Grain Valley 2-yard line. “The ball went right to (Fenner) and that’s not good. He’s electric. It was not designed to go to him.”
The Eagles had a chance to get a touchdown before the end of the half. They nearly had the ball at the Fort Osage 10-yard line with just under 20 seconds left. Larson threw a perfect pass that hit wide receiver Brek Sloan between the numbers. However, Fenner got his hand in there at the last moment to knock the ball away and force an incomplete pass.
The team had to settle for a 31-yard field goal from Schmitt to go into halftime down 20-10.
“I feel like we came in here with a game plan and heart,” Grain Valley senior Rhylan Alcanter said. “That’s what you need to win games like this, but we killed ourselves at the end of the day. The things that killed us, we could have controlled.”
Grain Valley’s offense sputtered the rest of the way as it gained only 37 of its total 177 yards of offense in the second half. The Indians also forced three turnovers on special teams and defense. Fort Osage shut down Grain Valley’s bread-and-butter inside run game between the A and B gaps.
“They took away our trap and came in, we knew that’s what they were going to do,” Allie said. “We didn’t block very well to hit those other edges.
“That’s how teams play us. They pinch their defense and make us bounce it outside to the C gap. Their D line is really good, obviously.”
Xander Shepherd made a 28-yard field goal and Menne scored on a 1-yard TD run to cap the scoring for Fort in the second half.
Grain Valley’s defense continued to play well as it gave up just 288 yards and 16 points. It also bottled up Peppers in the run game as he hadjust 43 yards on 25 carries.
“I am definitely going to look back at this with my children in the future,” Alcanter said. “I am going to talk to them about the friendships I made on this team and playing on this defense. We came into this season with no expectations and we left here with some pride.”
Eagles quarterback Caleb Larson on a 7-yard scoring run with 1:58 left in the first half to narrow the gap to 13-7. Photo credit: John Overstreet
Senior kicker Austin Schmitt made a 31-yard field goal at the end of the first half, bringing the gap to 20-10 at halftime. Photo credit: John Overstreet
Photo credit: John Overstreet
Photo credit: Clara Jaques