Hamilton built 25-0 first-half lead, then hung on for 31-26 victory at Marceline in all-area 11-man football Class 1 District 8 clash Friday, Nov. 9, 2018.

MARCELINE, Mo. — Against extremely-long odds, the Hamilton Hornets high school football team will play at home in the 2018 postseason, after all.
Left, despite a strong 6-3 record, to play all three of its Class 1 District 8 playoffs games on foreign fields by a fifth-place regular-season rating, Hamilton completed its road run last Friday with a fast-starting 31-26 triumph over the host Marceline Tigers in the district-championship game.
Thanks to their ninth victory in 12 games, the Hornets will host fellow KCI Conference member Mid-Buchanan (8-4) this Saturday at 1 p.m. in the state quarterfinals. Mid-Buchanan, which fell to Hamilton 29-27 in overtime at home at midseason, also won on the road in its District 7 final, walloping Wellington-Napoleon 36-6.
Battling to the bitter end on an unseasonably-frigid evening at Chester Ray Stadium, Marceline was unable to turn the tide after a disastrous close to the first quarter in which Hamilton, aided by two of its six takeaways, scored three touchdowns in the final 3:45 to establish a 19-0 lead. After the Hornets increased the gap to 25-0 less than two minutes before halftime, the Tigers (10-2) got in the end zone twice prior to intermission and twice in the second half were back within five points, but never climbed completely out of the big hole.
“This game was all about momentum,” Hamilton coach Caleb Obert told Henry Janssen of the Linn County Leader after the game. “The team that had momentum in their favor was the team that was performing better throughout the second half. We were lucky to get it early, and with a short field, we were able to put some points up. We knew that with their high-powered offense, they’d find a way to get back into this football game.”
“It just didn’t go our way tonight,” Marceline head coach Mark Ross said. “Some of those turnovers were uncharacteristic and the weather definitely played a factor in that.
“I was maybe a little too aggressive (with play calls) at times, and that’s just kind of the way it went.”
Hamilton sophomore running back Sawyer Morrow, who eventually finished with 196 yards and three scores on 32 carries, was established early behind the strong offensive line.
On Hamilton’s second possession, he constantly gained chunk yardage, finally scoring from two yards out with 3:40 remaining in the first quarter. With Morrow also booting the conversion kick, Hamilton had the initial upper hand at 7-0.
In the blink of an eye, that lead mushroomed to 19 points.
On both of Marceline’s next two possessions, quarterback Chase Billups threw interceptions, gifting Hamilton with phenomenal field position at the Tigers’ 22- and 13-yard lines, respectively.
The visitors wasted little time capitalizing, scoring 39 seconds before the end of the period on a 1-yard pass from quarterback Ryan Cook to Connor Kavanaugh and then again a mere 31 seconds later on a 12-yards Morrow run.
The sudden eruption gave way to a quiet stretch through the first nine minutes of the second quarter as Marceline eventually turned the ball over on four-straight series, which suited Hamilton fine. When the Hornets did the next damage, the visitors felt even better.
With the ball at the MHS 20 and less than two minutes to go until halftime, Morrow broke free and scored a third time, leaving Hamilton with a 4-scores lead, 25-0, even though it once more failed to convert for an extra point or two.
With only 1:41 to go in the half after Morrow’s score, Marceline was in dire straits. However, instead of panicking, it took a page out of the Hornets playbook and sharply turned the tide before the second quarter expired with their top ballcarrier and then a takeaway.
Following the Hamilton kickoff after Morrow’s third touchdown, the Tigers’ offense stepped on the field at its own 25 and, o the first snap, sprung junior Cullen Bruner free. He didn’t stop until he had out-run several pursuers all the way to the end zone. Only 33 seconds after falling behind by 25 points and following Bruner’s extra-point kick, Marceline was within 18. And it wasn’t finished.
As Hamilton tried to run out the clock, the Tigers pried the ball loose and recovered it inside the Hornets’ 30 with under 20 seconds to go in the half. With time expiring, Billups shrugged off his earlier interceptions and found top receiving target Clayton Stallo with a pass. Knowing it would be the last play of the half, the Tigers senior avoided a tackler at about the 10-yard line on his way to a 23-yards catch-and-run touchdown. With another Bruner kick, stunningly, the teams went to the locker room not with Hamilton in command, as it had been less than a minute earlier, but separated by only 11 points, 25-14.
“That was huge for us going into the half, we gave our guys some life and we were able to focus on what we wanted to do in the second half,” Ross said. “Our guys know that if we keep following our assignments, good things will happen.”
The momentum decisively turned, Marceline pressed its advantage when play resumed.
After neither side prospered on its first possession of the third quarter, Marceline had the ball near midfield when Billups, Marceline’s record-holder in nearly all passing categories, crossed up the Hamilton defense.
Keeping the ball on a run-pass, zone-read option, Billups showed elusiveness and unexpected speed while carrying the ball 57 yards to the Hamilton 3. On the next play, he narrowed the Hornets’ lead to 25-20 with more than seven minutes remaining in the third period.
Its once-daunting lead reduced to only five points and with its chances of extending its season beyond district play for a ninth time in the past 10 years slipping away, Hamilton demonstrated again the resiliency which previously had carried it to two overtime victories – including the week before at undefeated Milan – and to a tooth-and-nail, regular-season-ending win over North Platte.
Beginning in the latter stages of the third quarter, the Hornets put together a drive which, by the end of the period, had taken them deep into Marceline territory. On the second play of the fourth quarter, on his only carry of the game, Eli Harper darted 12 yards to paydirt and, despite yet another failed conversion attempt, Hamilton again had regained some insurance, coverage it would need.
In the middle of the final stanza, Marceline, needing two scores, found itself pinned deep in its own end of the Chester Ray Stadium field, but not ready to capitulate.
After working the ball up to near midfield fairly quickly, a long completion to Desmond Harrison gained 46 yards to the Hamilton 1. Bruner crashed in on the next play, once more drawing the Tigers within five and giving it the opportunity to close to within three – an important threshold, considering Bruner’s placekicking acumen – by converting for two points. Hamilton denied the attempt, though, leaving the hosts in need of a final TD, if it were to successfully complete its unlikely comeback.
Using two of its timeouts on defense, Marceline forced the Hornets to punt after three offensive plays, regaining possession at its own 33 with 2:13 to go. The Tigers’ last chance died quickly, however, a sack of Billups leading to a fourth-and-19 desperation throw toward Stallo that Hamilton broke up. Taking a knee three times, the Hornets drained the final minute-plus from the clock and, despite the scare, headed on to the state quarterfinals once more.
“We’re proud of the way those boys continued to fight,” Ross said. “It says a lot about them. We just came up a little short. That’s something we want some of those younger guys to keep in mind for next year.”
Statistically, Marceline finished with 346 yards of total offense to Hamilton’s 275, but paid the too-heavy price for its six turnovers, twice as many as it forced from the Hornets.
While Morrow came close to 200 yards running the ball, junior Bruner produced 170 on 18 carries.  Cook added 86 ground yards for the winners, but threw for only 11, while Billups connected 11 times for 124 yards in the air.
In a key development, Hamilton, by and large, successfully negated Stallo’s impact on the proceedings. His touchdown to end the first half was his lone reception and he netted only five yards on nine carries.
Defensively, for the Hornets, Harper had three tackles for losses among his six unassisted stops and team-high nine total tackles. Morrow and Kavanaugh  both had both an interception and fumble recovery, while Cook, who made six solo tackles, also had a “pick.” Malachi McBee had an interception, a sack, and another tackle for loss, while Cale Whitt and Ed Black each were in on seven tackles – six of Whitt’s and five of Black’s unassisted.
Marceline’s defense was paced by Colby Sims’ game-high 11 tackles – 10 of them by himself. Bruner and lineman Colton Jenkins had seven stops apiece, 13 of the 14 listed as unasssisted on the MHS stats summary. Alex McCauslin had the lone interception of Cook, while Billups and Stallo recovered Hamilton fumbles.
Left with only next season, not next week, to look forward to, first-year Marceline coach Ross commented to Janssen, “Our 16 seniors are going to be very tough to replace, but we’ve got some really good pieces.
“We’re still excited about the future of the program.”
(Some information for this story was provided by Henry Janssen of the Linn County Leader)