The next step
By Dion Clisso PrepsKC Managing Editor
A decade ago, Missouri split its biggest class in half and created a six-class system for football. That changed allowed more teams to have a chance to win a state title each year.
With schools like Blue Springs, Rockhurst, Jefferson City, Blue Springs South, CBC and Columbia Hickman all in the new Class 6 the first school to establish control of Class 5 was Raymore Peculiar. The Panthers made it to the state title game in 2002 losing to Webster Groves.
Two years later the Panthers were back, beating McCluer North for the first of three straight titles. Ray-Pec was the king of Class 5 and it was the program that all Class 5 teams in the Metro would measure themselves by.
The dominance at the state title level didn’t continue from there, but the Panthers were in the semifinals in 2008 and the quarterfinals in 2009 before making the jump to Class 6 in 2010.
Most might say the move to Class 6 isn’t that big considering the enrollments are within a few hundred of each other. Add in that Ray-Pec routinely played Class 6 schools like Blue Springs South and Lee’s Summit North. Even with those one or two games a year there was difference when the full-time jump came in 2010.
“First I said was whoa,” Ray-Pec coach Tom Kruse said. “I think obviously the speed and the size of the guys was different. They were pretty good sized but they were big fast guys and we knew we had to do something different from the training to the weight room to compete.”
The Panthers did well the first year, going 6-4 in the regular season before losing to Blue Springs in the first round of the playoffs. That team had standout quarterback Cameron Coffman and relied on a high-flying passing attack that could put a lot of points on the board.
Even though Ray-Pec was winning, it wasn’t the same style of play that had made it dominant in Class 5. The Panthers had been known as a hard driving running team that played tough physical defense. That was still the style Kruse wanted to play but the early returns where that the Panthers needed to improve in several areas to compete with Class 6 teams every week.
“We had kids that could run but we needed size,” Kruse said. “I felt like from a size standpoint we’ve closed the gap from where we were to where we are now. We’ve gotten bigger, but we’ve gotten faster too.”
Last year the Panthers slid back to 3-7 with wins over Ruskin, North Kansas City and Joplin. The defense struggled while the offense was still trying to reestablish its identity. The work was being done to take the next step but the results weren’t there yet.
One of the biggest differences Kruse and his staff found was that while you might play one or two Class 6 teams on your schedule and compete and even win, that was a much different situation than going toe to toe every week.
“When we were Class 5 and we played a couple Class 6 schools, it was kind of like a measuring stick for us,” Kruse said. “It was a no-lose situation. If we lost the game, then well we know they are a class bigger, but if you win that game what a confidence boost for your team.
“When you jump up, especially in our conference, there aren’t any get-healthy weeks. We played Lee’s Summit West this year and then played Blue Springs, and there was no time to lick our wounds. We needed to get back at it.”
This season has been much different. The Panthers went 6-3 in the regular season with only losses to Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit West and Blue Springs South. The loss at South was a close 41-34 defeat that the Panthers led in the fourth quarter.
The strong season earned Ray-Pec the No. 3 seed in the Class 6 District 4 tournament. They opened play last week with a 51-21 win over Joplin and now face Rockhurst in the district semifinal game Friday at Rockhurst.
Kruse knows that his program is improved but still needs to take one more step to be on the same level with teams like Blue Springs, Rock and South.
“Right now when you talk about Class 6 in Kansas City you talk about Blue Springs, Rockhurst and Blue Springs South, and then there is Ray-Pec,” Kruse said. “We want to be where you have to go through Rockhurst, Blue Springs, Blue Springs South, Ray-Pec. This year It’s those guys and then Ray-Pec is having a good year. We want to be in that group, but until you beat one of those teams we aren’t going to be there.”
That step might not be able to be fully taken this week, but a win at Rockhurst and a trip to the district championship could get the Panthers well down the road to being in that elite group.
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