Eyeing fourth-place district finish, playoffs home game, 1-6 CHS welcomes winless St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond for final regular-season home game tonight
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Any sports team wants to finish its regular season strong when it has postseason competition assured ahead of it.
The Chillicothe High School football Hornets and St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond Golden Eagles, though, have had extra reason to have their focus on the last two games of their 2018 season.
As the teams take Bob Fairchild Field at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II tonight at 7 p.m. for CHS’ final regular-season home appearance, they do so with only one victory between them this fall. That came in week four of the season when Chillicothe coasted by Cameron 34-8.
Aside from that isolated instance, the defeats have piled up, one atop another, for both squads. However, looming in the distance for several weeks, but now at hand, have been games in weeks eight and nine against fellow Midland Empire Conference members which have fared little or no better thus far.
While Chillicothe (1-6, 0-5 conf.) entertains Bishop LeBlond (0-7, 0-5 conf.) tonight, Cameron (2-5, 0-5 conf.) will host St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond (1-6, 1-4 conf.). Then next week, they’ll rotate playing partners – Chillicothe going to Benton and Bishop LeBlond to Cameron.
The final two games for each not only will determine the pecking order of the bottom half of the MEC standings for 2018, but also will significantly impact the teams’ respective final standings in their districts.
Chillicothe, Cameron, and Benton are in a scramble for fourth through sixth place in Class 3 District 8. Bishop LeBlond, because it is a Class 1 team this year and has played almost exclusively schools of two or three classifications larger – reaping 10 bonus points for each classification larger a particular foe is, presently stands fourth in Class 1 District 7 by a relatively-solid margin despite its winless record. With another 20 bonus points coming its way in each of its last two games, it appears the Golden Eagles will open the playoffs at home, even if they’re without a regular-season victory.
Aside from the on-field result of tonight’s game and its impact on the district standings, this evening’s contest will be Chillicothe’s occasion for honoring its eight senior players – James Fainter, Dakota Farrell, Sam Applebury, Drake Lightner, Matt Callen, Lavery Jones, Cade Koehly, and Kyler Reed.
“They’ve been phenomenal,” Tim Rulo, CHS’ first-year head coach, says of his first group of Chillicothe senior players. “When you only have eight, you’ll definitely never forget those guys.
“Being in a situation where you’re with a new coach can be challenging and I’ve thought they’ve handled it really well and definitely left a great legacy.”
Personnel-wise, the Hornets’ coaching staff has varied its offensive starting lineup a bit to accommodate the "Senior Night" occasion.
When CHS first has possession of the ball in the game, the unit on the field will include first-time starters Fainter and Applebury on the offensive line with classmates Reed and Lightner. The backfield will have Farrell and Jones at the wingback/halfback posts. Each of those backs will make his first offensive start, joining normal starting fullback Koehly.
Callen will start, as usual, on defense, where Koehly and Jones also start.
Tonight’s game figures to be one of contrasting offensive approaches, Bishop LeBlond’s virtually dictated by its circumstances.
While Chillicothe remains, as it has for a half-century, heavily run-oriented, even if in a different style under its new boss, the Golden Eagles – with only about 25 players out for the team at the start of the season and with two of them having their seasons ended prematurely by injuries – don’t have the depth to play a physical, pound-on-you style week after week.
Instead, rather than winning 11-on-11 battles of force, they use a spread offensive formation which tries to get 1-on-1 or small-group confrontations in space through pass completions. Senior Jaren Guck, a first-year gridder, has been their most-dangerous playmaker.
Considering pass defense has been Chillicothe’s largest defensive weakness – thus far, opponents are completing two out of every three throws and averaging almost nine yards gained per attempt (more than 13 per completion), Bishop LeBlond’s approach seems dangerous against CHS.
“When you’re playing a team that throws the ball, you’ve got to make sure you don’t give up the deep ball. You’ve got to make sure you’re keeping everything in front of you,” cautions Rulo. “You can’t get crossed up in coverages.”
“… You’ve got to be smart and not give up the big play.”
Even if it doesn’t gain an early upper hand, as long as Chillicothe can be close as the game moves deeper into the second half, it’s chances seem likely to improve.
“They’ve played some really good (first) halves (against Kansas City: St. Pius X and Benton),” Rulo observes. “… Their roster numbers kind of get them (in second halves) because they just don’t have the depth. You can see the attrition that happens throughout a game gets them a little bit.”
“We have very little depth and that poses a problem, because these young men get no breaks,” affable veteran St. Joseph-area coach Tony Dudik, leader of the BLHS program for about the past eight year, acknowledges.
“I am extremely proud of the improvement we have shown as a team. While the scoreboard may not indicate it, we have grown. We have been able to move the football at times, but have shown an inability to stop people.
“A lot of that has to do with the fact that some of our players (currently) are not strong enough, fast enough or physical enough to play on Friday nights.”
While Dudik is a proven developer of players, the age make-up of this BLHS team doesn’t seem to offer much hope for improvement in 2019 and perhaps beyond. Nine of the 25 players on the original roster are seniors and only two are freshmen.
“No one enjoys losing,” the Catholic school’s coach comments on this season’s struggles. “However, there have been several positives.”
Chief among those positives have been the performances of three seniors – offensive tackle/middle linebacker Adam Reardon, quarterback/free safety Frankie Gall, and running back/outside linebacker Kyle Knapp.
“I truly believe that they could play for anyone in the conference,” he asserts. “They are outstanding players and exceptional leaders by example. They bring it every week.”
“It all centers around that quarterback, who can sling it pretty well,” Rulo says of Gall, who has had games this season when he’s thrown the ball 40 times.
While Knapp is capable of making some rushing yardage if the CHS defense takes a nap on the ground game, the Chillicothe coach states, “If their backs against the wall, they’re going to throw the ball.”
Based on the teams’ play to date, Chillicothe should have the capability to move the ball and score, if it doesn’t self-destruct with turnovers. Bishop LeBlond’s defense, as its head coach referenced, has been very pliant and CHS ran for more than 200 yards last week against Savannah.
As for Dudik’s impressions of the Hornets in their inaugural year under a new head coach without Chillicothe roots, he says, “They are improving every week. Any time you take over a new program, it takes time to create a culture. All people have to do is look at Scott Frost at the University of Nebraska.
“Starting a program is not a quick fix nor is it easy. It takes time.”
Chillicothe seemed to do enough positive things last week against high-flying Savannah that it should have gained confidence in its ability to move the ball and score when it doesn’t commit turnovers.
Add to the offensive success they had last week to the awareness they’re facing a team with even fewer wins than themselves and there is reasonable concern that a still-young, lightly-experienced team like the Hornets could fall prey to overlooking Bishop LeBlond, Rulo understands.
“The proof will be in the pudding, how (CHS’ players) come out (tonight),” in terms of mental sharpness, he says, noting the Hornets don’t have much in the way of accomplishments to feel cocky about. “… Our record isn’t too great either.”
Asked for his view of keys to potential victory No. 1 for his team, Dudik shared several, among them, “We must make the Hornets earn everything they get. We cannot afford to give up big plays.
“Most importantly, we have to make plays in all phases of the game and match the Hornets’ physicality! We have to move the ball with consistency and have 11 guys on the same page playing at a high level.”
Rulo seemed to lean toward an intangible – his team’s focus and mental preparedness.
“They can pose some problems. … We need to make sure we’re ready to go, both offensively and defensively.