Raymore-Peculiar is loaded with size, experience and talent. Belton has some veterans but is mostly new.
When the two longtime rivals met Aug. 18 in the first week of the high-school football season, experience trumped fresh talent. Ray-Pec, ranked No. 8 in Class 6, rallied for a 37-22 victory over the Pirates at Panthers Stadium.
Belton returns only six starters from last season’s 8-4 team that lost to Columbia Battle in the Class 5 District 6 championship game. Fortunately, Pirates coach Todd Vaughn has two veterans on offense – quarterback Bart Harris and running back Dante Madden.
On the other hand, Ray-Pec returns 10 starters from last year’s team, seven on offense. Three of the seven are on the offensive line: Zach Starforth, Kendrick Tusay and Chase Hutchinson. Altogether, they average 6 feet 4 inches in height and 275 pounds. That line paved the way for Ray-Pec running back Chris McKinzy, who rushed for 172 yards and four touchdowns.
“He’s a special player,” said Ray-Pec coach Tom Kruse. “He is better and stronger than a year ago. He has speed that’s hard to catch in the open field.”
Even though it lost by 15 points, Belton didn’t make it easy on Ray-Pec. The Pirates went into the half with a 14-10 lead.
Harris navigated the Pirates down the field twice in the first quarter for touchdowns. The first was a fourth down, 46-yard pass from Harris to Ezekial Henson. Ray-Pec responded on the next play with a McKinzy 68-yard romp down the left sideline tying the game at 7-7.
On the second possession, Madden scored on a three-yard run and put the Pirates in front 14-7. Madden led the Pirates with 131 rushing yards on 19 carries.
After the first-quarter offensive explosion, Ray-Pec settled down on defense, holding Belton scoreless for two quarters, while the Panthers’ offense put up 20 points in the third quarter to seal the win. McKinzy scored all three TDs in the quarter, the first one on a 23-yard run and the other two from four yards out.
Despite the loss, Vaughn believes he has the team that can make a run at another district championship game.
“We lost Nick Snyder (receiver) from last year,” said Vaughn “but our skill positions on offense and defense are better off than we have ever been. The same way in the secondary we have a lot of kids that can play back there.”
The key to this season, Vaughn said, will be coming together with new team leadership.
“The overall commitment level has been great,” Vaughn said. “Our kids have worked hard in the offseason and this summer and are committed to what we are doing. The potential is pretty high for us to be a pretty good football team.”
Ray-Pec opened the season with a new quarterback with a familiar face. Noah Durham, a running back who suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through last season, is back as the Panthers’ signal-caller.
Kruse said Durham, who played quarterback in eighth grade and as a freshman, isn’t entirely new to the position.
“He was such a good athlete his sophomore year we moved him to running back and he was having a great junior year before he tore his ACL,” Kruse said. “He is just getting back into the movement piece. By week five he becomes a threat in our running game as well.”
In addition to McKinzy and Durham in the backfield, the Panthers have some experience at wide receiver. Luke Graham, Javon Williams, Zaire Hardman and Brandon Carvan will be ready once the passing game opens up.
“We felt like this could be the year we have the pieces in place, but we have to stay healthy,” said Kruse. “Beating Blue Springs last year and having that run in the playoffs have set us up for a successful season this year. It’s really going to be how quickly our defense gets up to speed and jells as a unit.”