Despite 1-5 record, Hornets have chances to finish 2018 regular season in positive manner
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Having made four trips to such divergent locales as Kirksville, Maryville, Kansas City, and St. Joseph over the past five Fridays, the Chillicothe High School football Hornets will get to slip on the pads in their own locker room and play on their home Bob Fairchild Field, where they’ve done their best so far in 2018, tonight. Whether that is enough for them to give the rampaging Savannah Savages a good scrap will be determined starting at 7 o’clock this evening.
The Hornets (1-5, 1-3 conf.) will host the Midland Empire Conference co-leader Savages (4-2, 4-0 conf.) at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II in what should be dry and mild (low 70s at game time) weather.
CHS enters the action off back-to-back road losses to St. Pius X and Lafayette, but were victorious their last time on the home turf. Savannah, after dropping its two non-conference games to begin the season, storms in not only having registered four league wins in succession, but having scored at least 47 points in each and surpassing 60 three times.
“In weeks one and two, they turned the ball over a lot. They looked really tentative on offense and defense, looked really unsure of themselves,” reflects Tim Rulo, first-year Chillicothe head coach. “I don’t know what the difference was, but you can just see there was a decision that was made that, ‘Hey, we’re going to go and take care of business.’ They play so much faster. They’re so much more aggressive.”
Randy Schrader, second-year Savannah coach, gives credit to his team for not letting worries after the two initial losses distract or sidetrack them.
“It’s important to keep your focus when things don’t go well,” he told the C-T in a phone chat Wednesday.
Chillicothe hopes it hit rock bottom, at least in its biggest bugaboo – turnovers, when it lost possession of the ball seven times (five fumbles, two interceptions) against Lafayette.
Rulo concurs that personal responsibility for doing one’s own job properly without worrying about what teammates might or might not be doing is where the process of correcting repeated mistakes begins.
“We need to focus on ourselves and we need to get better – each individual player making that decision to get better, and coaches, as well,” he shared in an interview with local reporters after Wednesday’s practice.
While it does have a fine, nimble junior quarterback in Chase Spoonemore, who can both run and throw the ball, Savannah won’t feature much razzle-dazzle on either side of the ball.
the Savages largely come right at you with a power-based running game featuring stocky, low-running, senior back Titan Irvine behind a very large line – SHS has multiple 300-pounders on its roster – and a hard-charging defensive core of three linemen and three linebackers who like to get into the backfield and disrupt things.
Terming the 188-pounds Irvine “a phenomenal runner” and labeling the Savannah defense “really aggressive,” the Chillicothe coach praises, “They’re super-physical. Nothing fancy.”
Savannah also has put opponents under the gun with their kick returning. Each of the last two weeks, the Savages have accepted the game’s opening kickoff and taken it “to the house” – once with speedy slotback Jadon Brady and last week, against Cameron, with Irvine. Against the descending Dragons last week, Savannah had 14 points on the scoreboard before its offense took a snap, as Brady, on Cameron’s punt following Irvine’s TD return, fielded a bouncing punt at about his own 40 and, zipping crossfield through a large seam, put it in the end zone, too.
A special-teams score was Chillicothe’s saving grace last week, Isaak Rasche’s 79-yards bolt up the right side being all that stood between the error-plagued Hornets and their fourth shutout loss of the year.
Given Savannah’s voluminous scoring over the past four weeks – it’s averaging an even 68 points, Chillicothe’s coach acknowledges it doesn’t take much common sense to know that “holding onto the ball” – keeping his own offense on the field through sustained drives, even if they don’t produce points, would be advantageous.
However, he notes with a wry chuckle, “Right now, we want to keep the ball in our hands – literally.”
Through its first six games, CHS has fumbled 26 times and lost 17 of those. A mind-blowing 17 times (including both lost fumbles and interceptions) – eight of them last week – the Hornets have given the ball away with the first three snaps of a possession.
“We’ve just got to continue (working at) getting better,” Rulo insists, “and that’s hard sometimes when there’s not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.
“It can be a challenge when you’ve got a quality team in front of you like Savannah, but the cream rises to the top. You find out real quick the guys that want to be here and the guys that want to play and have a lot of pride and a lot of respect for themselves.”
For his part, Schrader offered the assessment of the Hornets that, when they’re not losing the handle on the ball, “they’re improving.” He called himself “impressed with their offensive line,” which should have starting center Drake Lightner back tonight after resting a nagging injury last week.
Should Chillicothe give Savannah an unexpected challenge tonight, observers likely will opine that the Savages were looking past the Hornets to next week’s projected MEC title showdown with co-leader Maryville at Savannah.
“That’s always a concern,” Schrader candidly admitted to the C-T, but he downplayed the likelihood of his players taking Chillicothe lightly, especially since the Savages let a potential upset of the heavily-favored Hornets get away last year.
“The kids have done a good job of showing up each day and doing what they need to do” to meet the task at hand.
While the first six weeks of 2018 play have not gone remotely how the team or fans had hoped, given the scarcity of experienced players and a rather-small number of seniors (eight) to try to rebuild around following the graduation of last year’s large cadre of talented and accomplished senior, the current 1-5 record might not be much, if any, different if the voluntarily-retired prior coaching regime were still leading the program and using the same system. As that leadership experienced not that many years ago, there are some years where growing pains are inevitable.
This year’s Hornets do have a potential silver lining they still could potentially exploit to make 2018 look rosier by its end.
In spite of their lowly won-lost record, but because of having three larger-classification schools on their schedule (Marshall, Kirksville, Lafayette) and the similar lack of success to date of several other teams in their Class 3 district, the Hornets implausibly would get to host a first-round district playoffs game if the regular season was already over.
Chillicothe takes the field tonight with the fifth-best points-system rate (23.33) among the eight District 16 teams. However, one rung ahead of them at present is Cameron, who the Hornets defeated head-to-head. If that order still held true at season’s end, regardless of what number spots they held, the Hornets automatically would switch spots on the district playoffs bracket with the Dragons, because of Chillicothe’s week four victory.
While recent trends argue loudly against the Hornets springing an upset of the Savages tonight – a week before Savannah is due to host conference co-leader Maryville, Chillicothe’s final two regular-season opponents (St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond and Benton) are having similar, if not poorer, seasons to them. Although by no means a sure thing, if the Hornets can get the butter wiped off their fingers, they could close the regular season with consecutive wins that likely would make them the district’s No. 4 seed and earn them the right to host a first-round game.
“There’s really an opportunity to do some great stuff,” affirms Rulo, who shares that among the top goals he shared with the squad before season’s start were having a home playoff game and reaching the district title game a second-straight time.
“In the end, it honestly doesn’t matter what the regular season looks like, you can still get hot at the end and go play for that,” he says enthusiastically.
“We’ll see. I know, for my seniors especially, they want that, but it takes more than a couple of guys. We’re really going to have to dig deep these next three weeks as we finish out the regular season and see what we’re made of.”