Clash of unbeaten host Warriors, 1-loss CHS Friday, Oct. 6, will pair ‘physical’ teams
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — One former Moberly High School football head coach will walk off the field at Smithville High’s stadium tonight exulting in victory. Another won’t.
Both might be leading the 2017 Midland Empire Conference champion when the regular season concludes next week or only one will.
In their 20th year under Phil Willard, who guided Moberly’s Spartans for close to 10 years in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Chillicothe High School Hornets (6-1 overall, 4-1 MEC) will visit Smithville’s undefeated Warriors (7-0, 5-0 MEC), led for a third year by Jason Ambroson after he came there following a successful 5-7 years run at MHS.
The game not only will match teams coached by men who share some common background, but will pair teams which this year are playing nearly-identical styles and with nearly-matching results.
About the only difference through the first seven games of the 2017 season is that Smithville posted an increasingly-impressive 35-0 victory over St. Joseph: lafayette in week five and the Hornets fell to mhs’ Fighting Irish 54-38 the following week.
Asked to dissect the differences between his club’s and Smithville’s showings against speedy Lafayette, coach Willard replied succinctly, “No. 1 was cover their receivers better. We didn’t cover very well and they did.”
Smithville’s perfection to date has been a bit surprising, given its relative youth and lack of an established offensive standout coming into the season. Much like the Savannah team Chillicothe battled to vanquish last week, the Warriors have been on a steady, upward trend all year.
“The kids have been very focused on getting better each week,” Ambroson salutes. “… When you have kids like that, … success follows.”
“They’re very good, fundamentally, on both sides of the ball,” Willard asserts.
While pass coverage can’t – and won’t – be totally ignored tonight, the premium for both sides will be how well it can run the ball against a sturdy opposing defense and, conversely, how good it is at slowing its opponent’s very strong ground attack.
“It’s going to be a very physical game,” Ambroson predicted during a chat with the C-T yesterday.
Assessed coach Willard Wednesday, regarding SHS, “Nothing real fancy. They just get right after you and block you.”
The clock doesn’t figure to be stopped all that often as each side tends to run the ball inside more often than either outside or throwing it.
“They really like to run inside the tackles, if they can,” coach Willard notes. “They do a great job of blocking up front.”
Smithville’s offensive line includes four returning starters from a year ago, when Chillicothe used 11 fourth-period points to slip past the Warriors, 17-7.
While the line is virtually the same and clearly has improved with experience, a major component of the Smithville offense’s expanded productivity is sophomore tailback Isaac Miller.
About 5’9” and 180 pounds, coach Willard guesstimates, Miller unofficially has used strength, balance, and vision to amass about 1,600 or 1,700 rushing yards in seven games, the CHS coach says.
“One of the best tailbacks we’ve seen in quite some time. Has great feet, but he’s also difficult to tackle,” the coach states.
While Miller handles the bulk of the load from his spot in the offset-I formation the Warriors normally are aligned in, the Chillicothe head coach notes that one of two fullbacks SHS will use – starter Hugh Beck or fill-in Garrett Steffen – can gain yardage, too.
Orchestrating the Smithville attack is junior quarterback Kellen Simoncic, who was the team’s starter last year. Under the tutelage of former Cameron High All-State quarterback Drew Newhart, he has progressed well, coach Willard asserts.
“One of the biggest improvements I’ve seen is in their quarterback,” the Hornets boss states. “… Does a really nice job of handling the football and play-action passing.”
Noting Newhart’s influence on Simoncic’s development, he adds, “You can tell he’s done a great job (of) coaching.”
When Smithville does go to the air, Simoncic reportedly likes to target junior flanker Garrett Thompson.
Last year, with a lineup largely comprised of juniors and sophomores – many of them without previous starting experience, the Warriors were held to under 50 yards of rushing and merely 125 in the air while scoring only one touchdown against the Hornets.
Defensively, Smithville usually adjusts its defense to the opponent and game situation, according to coach Willard.
“They threw four or five fronts at us last year,” he notes.
Top defenders for the Warriors include senior end Steffen, senior linebacker Jacob Perez, and junior linebacker Brian Boyd, who made two of the four interceptions Smithville had in last week’s home victory over Maryville.
“They really flow to the ball well on defense,” points out the Hornets coach.
Coach Willard says his team needs to stay close – preferably ahead – on the scoreboard and in good down-and-distance situations because Smithville has proven very effective in getting pressure on a quarterback when it’s clearly a passing situation.
“They’ve caused everyone we’ve seen on video some problems (in passing situations), even with a 3-man rush,” the Hornets coach reveals.
As for what about Chillicothe which most concerns Ambroson, he says it’s the Hornets’ relentless, physical style.
“There’ll be no breaks, no plays off,” he says. “You have to be ready every play.”
The Hornets have been in those stressful conditions each of the past two weeks and have not given into the pressure.
“Our kids have shown a lot of character, even with the bad start last week. They really hung in there and battled. They did that against Lafayette, too. So, we’re going to be used to that kind of game. We’re just hoping we can block and tackle well enough that we can get the job done.”
Given his team’s preferred, grind-it-out offensive approach, the Warriors coach notes the impact CHS placekicker Jack Willard can have, in terms of establishing favorable field position for the Hornets’ defense. Willard sent all six of his kickoffs at Savannah last week into the end zone for touchbacks.
“It’s huge,” Ambroson said of that capability. “He’s a great kicker, not just with kickoffs, but on field goals and extra points and with his punting.”
Unstated, but understood, is the respect Smithville has for the Chillicothe running attack which – with its 1-2 punch of Josh Kille (911 yards, 23 TDs) and Brett Shaffer (723 yards, 10.3 per carry) is averaging 314 yards a game to help the team put up an average of 44.5 points.
With the likelihood that both teams will move the ball with some success while chewing up a lot of time, the Smithville coach notes there will be a premium for each side to capitalize whenever it comes up with a scoring opportunity, whether generated by its offense, defense, or special teams.
“You’ll have to be pretty efficient,” Ambroson says, anticipating there will be fewer possessions than in most games.
“…You can’t turn the ball over (and prosper) when you have two teams that like to run the ball.”
Coach Willard knows his club likely can’t afford to get behind by multiple scores, as it has each of the past two games (21 points vs. Lafayette, 12 after one period at Savannah).
“We’ve got to be able to… play lower (in pad level) than we did last week and have a better start, of course. Not shoot ourselves in the foot with turnovers and those kinds of things,” he states.
“If we can avoid that, then it ought to be a real battle.”