Entering Friday, Nov. 2, 2018 clash at Maryville, prior two district-playoffs meetings between rival have seen tight contests into second half after decisive regular-season results

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

While the Maryville Spoofhounds have loomed over the Chillicothe High School football Hornets postseason landscape most of the past five years, the rivals actually have squared off in the district playoffs only twice previously under the current 7-years-old state playoffs system. On both occasions, the game was not decided until after halftime.

Tonight at 7 o’clock, the third postseason meeting  of the schools’ teams will occur at Maryville High’s field in the Class 3 District 8 semifinals with Chillicothe (4-6) in pursuit of its first playoffs victory over the heavily-favored Spoofhounds (8-1).

The Midland Empire Conference members squared off at Maryville – but, for weather-related reasons, in Northwest Missouri State University’s Bearcat Stadium – not quite two months ago with the ’Hounds beginning their march to their latest conference title with a 47-0 victory on a coolish Sept.7.

For inspiration entering tonight’s action, the Hornets need to glance back only three years when, overwhelmed 64-3 in a regular-season week three visit to “the ’Hound Pound, they returned not quite two months later for a district semifinal, scored the game’s first two touchdowns, and went to the locker room at halftime ahead 14-8 after failing to convert on a second-stanza first-and-goal opportunity that could have given them a 21-0 lead.

After Maryville scored on its first series of the third quarter and moved in front, the first of five final-half CHS turnovers propelled the home team toward a 50-28 victory.

For motivation, Chillicothe only has to remember last year’s game. With a number of the current Hornets in uniform, even if only about a handful were involved in the action, CHS – having shut Maryville out 24-0 in the regular season – posted the game’s first two touchdowns – on its first two possessions, only to stall offensively in the face of a MHS defensive adjustment and never score again in what eventually sorted out as a 20-12 home-field loss.

As both of those prior playoff meetings, the potential for significant variation from the teams’ earlier clash almost two months before is very real.

On the surface, based on their play throughout the season and against Chillicothe specifically, the Spoofhounds would be expected to have little difficulty dispatching the Hornets again – and that might just happen.

However, the September meeting was between a Chillicothe team in only its third game under first-year head coach Tim Rulo and still struggling to get a feel for the intricacies of the option-based offense he was integrating, and a MHS squad that had about half of the starting lineup which had taken it to the 2017 state championship.

CHS’ learning curve was still quite steep then, evidenced by the fact that the Hornets committed their eighth, ninth, and 10th turnovers of the first three games. Add in a bad punt that netted only four yards and the Spoofhounds scored three of their four first-period touchdowns on drives of less than 40 yards en route to a 33-0 lead before the second quarter was four minutes old.

“I went back and watched that week three game a couple of times now and we just look timid out there and you definitely don’t want to ever play football timid,” Rulo shared with local reporters Wednesday night after practice.

With nearly the entire second half played with a “running clock” and the Spoofhounds understandably backing off on the accelerator some (whether consciously or subconsciously), the hosts tacked on only a couple more touchdowns, but the Hornets’ offense also offered a few post-intermission hints that each possession and play was bringing it greater familiarity with its new approach and the suggestion of better days ahead.

Now, even though still modestly, considering the opposition they faced, some of those better days have arrived in the form of three successive victories that have given the Hornets a chance to play at least an 11th time this fall.

“You can just see that the guys are much more comfortable,” Rulo says.

Observes MHS head coach Matt Webb, “Chillicothe has really improved their option offense. … You can tell that they are much better at operating coach Rulo's option attack. They are blocking things much more clean and all of their option reads have improved.”

Beyond the offense’s heightened comfort level, the CHS coach says 10 games of varsity-level competition for a squad that had only three defensive starters and no one on offense back from 2017 also has the players accustomed, first-hand, to the demands of their task.

“We are definitely a much-stronger team, a lot more-experienced,” he asserts.

Just as Chillicothe has advanced, Maryville has gained in experience and execution, but it might not be able to bring the full weight of its own development to bear on this rematch.

Senior halfback/cornerback Eli Dowis, a dynamic offensive threat as a ballcarrier, receiver, and even passer, missed the Spoofhounds’ regular-season finale, reportedly with a knee injury. Perhaps more impactful in last year’s playoff win over Chillicothe in the defensive secondary than on offense (Dowis did not play in the regular-season meeting after initially deciding not to go out for the sport), the senior’s status for tonight’s game is not known with certainty in Chillicothe circles.

Also absent from the MHS lineup for their 24-7 victory over St. Joseph: Lafayette two weeks ago were a pair of sophomore starting offensive backfield members – quarterback Ben Walker and halfback Connor Weiss. Published reports at that time did not reference them being held out for health reasons, raising the possibility that they might have been serving a disciplinary penalty. If that was the case, their availability tonight – while expected from CHS’ perspective – might not assured either.

Understandably, Rulo says preparations for his team are not affected by those uncertainties.

“It doesn’t really matter who” is lined at the positions those three play, he states. “… That guy’s really not here? He really is injured or got in trouble or whatever the case may be? Guess what? The next guy’s just going to step in.

“That’s what we saw in the (game against Lafayette) when they did have a few guys that weren’t playing. They took a wide receiver and moved him in at quarterback and he looked just fine.

“… Whoever plays, you’ve got to be ready for… physical, hard, wing-T (offensive) football.”

Among others, Rulo cites two specific keys – limiting the effectiveness of the inside runs of MHS fullback Tyler Houchin and avoidance of turnovers in order to have some sustained drives – his club must accomplish to give itself a chance tonight.

“That’s something that’s going to need to improve,” he says of much-better ball security. “… You’ve got to keep their offense off the field. You have to limit the number of possessions where they have the football.”

Not surprisingly, though, both head coach pinpoint play in the trenches as the most critical component in determining the outcome.

“Any Maryville vs. Chillicothe game will be determined by the offensive and defensive lines,” Webb declares. “The team that wins in the trenches will likely win the game.”

“Their offensive line … – it really starts with those guys,” Rulo says, elaborating on the lesser concern he has about whether Dowis, Weiss, or Walker play. “… Typically, when your offensive line is playing well, the rest of the team’s going to play well.

“… That’s where the game’s going to be won or lost.”

Both coaches express personal excitement over the setting and where their teams are.

“I think we're playing really good right now in all phases and we're excited to play the Hornets,” shares Webb.

“If you’re not amped up, … you might want to check the pulse,” the Hornets’ chief enthuses, “because … great high school football is played in November.”