Last Friday's 14-13 home victory assured CHS .500 season, kept them atop Class 3 District 16 playoff seedings ratings
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Game-long strong execution of their offensive and defensive game plans lifted the Chillicothe High School football Hornets – beaten by the same foe 56-6 on the road a year ago – over the St. Joseph: Lafayette Fighting Irish 14-13 Friday, one of CHS’ most-satisfying victories in years.
“Everybody’s almost still in shock,” Tim Rulo, second-year Chillicothe head coach, admitted shortly after the win on Bob Fairchild Field at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II. “An awesome win.”
“They played so well,” he praised his squad. “They kept going. They kept getting after it. Just so proud of them.”
Blown out by Lafayette on multiple occasions over the past decade, the Hornets (5-1, 3-1 conf.) pulled the Midland Empire Conference surprise by consistently possessing the ball for extended stretches of time – even though only two of those series finished with a score – and by defending well against both the run and pass – including gang-tackling efficiently to deny the quick Irish yards after catches or contact.
In the end, the margin separating the two on the scoreboard came late in the third period when, down 14-7 since about the middle of the second quarter, Lafayette drove 98 yards in 10 plays following an interception, only to have senior quarterback Daeton McGaughy’s 7-yards scoring run at 3:29 of the third period followed by a too-low snap on the conversion kick attempt.
That preserved a razor-thin Chillicothe lead, but the Hornets’ defense made that enough.
“The defense had these huge stops at the end of the (first) half and the end of the game,” Rulo cited, juxtaposing that unit’s shining moments with the Hornets’ offense’s producing touchdowns late in each half of the prior week’s narrow victory over Kansas City: St. Pius X. “That’s just amazing.
“That’s one of the things I love about football is you have to depend on other people. You have to depend on the other side of the ball or even special teams. How important is an extra point, that we were able to get both of ours and they were not.”
“… We were able to take care of business in all three phases.”
A bit surprisingly, the victory over a Class 4 school, which meant bonus points in the playoffs ratings system – kept Chillicothe ahead of its next opponent – Savannah – at the top of their Class 3 district’s ratings. Since Savannah won big over Class 4 St. Joseph: Benton and picked up more margin-of-victory points than CHS, it had been anticipated the Savages might leap-front Chillicothe to the top spot, but they didn’t.
Perhaps just as importantly, the unexpected Hornets’ victory could eventually be a critical factor in them trying to finish ahead of Kansas City: Pembroke Hill and in the top two in the district seedings at the end of the regular season.
Doing that would mean the Hornets not only would host a first-round game in the 3-rounds district playoffs, but at least two. If, their confidence bulwarked by the victory over Lafayette – which had battled Savannah well in an SHS win a week before, they could register another unexpected triumph over the Savages on the road next week, the Hornets almost certainly would be in position to be the district’s top seed, come playoffs time, and play at home in all three rounds (if they win in the first two).
Friday’s Chillicothe triumph also assured the Hornets of at least a .500 season in head coach Tim Rulo’s second year at the helm and resets sights much higher. A 7-2 regular season now looks very achievable and even an 8-1 mark a reasonable possibility. A 7-2 regular season could well be followed by at least a couple of playoff wins and potentially at least a 9-3 final mark.
Having prevented Lafayette from reaching the end zone with a late-first-half march Friday, the Hornets’ “D” followed the third-quarter LHS length-of-the-field sojourn with perhaps the game’s pivotal sequence.
A bad snap on a CHS punt attempt resulted in Lafayette getting the ball at midfield with 9:57 remaining. However, after a major penalty against the visitors, sophomore cornerback Braxten Johnson, making only his second start, broke up consecutive passes on second and third downs, leading to an Irish punt from its own 34.
“Our defense was able to step up big for us there. Coach Smith and those guys did a great job,” complimented Rulo.
Johnson’s performance on that sequence – he also was in coverage on the pre-penalty, first-down incompletion – was only part of his strong, game-long performance.
“When you’re the sophomore out there, they kind of ‘call your number’ and they attacked him quite a bit,” Rulo saluted, “but he stepped up. I can only think of one pass that was completed on him and that was a ‘comeback’ route, which is very hard to defend and the guy stepped right out of bounds (for a short gain). … They went back to (that same pattern a short time later) and overthrew (the receiver)” because of Johnson’s good inside-position coverage. “He played wonderfully.”
While Johnson, often singled up in coverage against Lafayette’s top receiver, performed well under the microscope, veteran Hornets like 2-ways lineman Isaac Washburn were instrumental in the triumph, too.
In addition to blocking well on offense, Washburn perhaps had the best defensive game of his CHS career, as well. He was part of eight tackles – three of them unassisted and one of the shared ones behind the line of scrimmage, as well as recovering the LHS fumble that set up the game’s first touchdown.
"Isaac does an amazing job for this team in many areas,” Rulo praised. “His leadership is outstanding and his relentless effort is exactly what Chillicothe Hornet football is all about.
“He is someone you always see around the ball and gives great effort all the way to the whistle."
Although the host Hornets didn’t sustain as long a series as they’d have liked on the ensuing possession, they did run six plays that, when they punted, left Lafayette at its 21 with 5:15 remaining.
Two lengthy runs by McGaughy soon had the ball at the Chillicothe 44, but the Hornets’ defense made stops for very short gains on the next two plays, then defended two passes well, resulting in incompletions and the ball going back Chillicothe at its 41 with just over three minutes to go and both teams down to one timeout.
After advancing the ball almost to midfield, the hosts punted, leaving Lafayette (3-3, 1-2 conf.) one last opportunity for heroics, beginning from its own 28 and 1:22 to play.
A third-and-10 conversion pass took the ball to the Irish 42 and a 10-yards scramble by McGaughy on fourth-and-1 put the ball at the Chillicothe 39, but with only 12 seconds to go. After an incompletion left only four ticks left, a long, desperation pass was intercepted by Chillicothe senior end/linebacker Brad Hayen at the Chillicothe 12 as time ran out.
Chillicothe never trailed in the game, starting the scoring on the first snap of the second quarter.
Following a Lafayette muff of a fair catch on a punt and Washburn’s recovery at the LHS 18, the Hornets used eight plsys to push the ball into the end zone. Quarterback Jaden Winder’s sneak off left guard from a yard out and Jamacin Carr’s conversion kick gave Chillicothe a hope-infusing 7-0 lead.
Seemingly roused, Lafayette took the ball 65 yards on an equal number of plays – eight, capping its march with McGaughy’s 11-yards touchdown keeper off left tackle. A successful point-after kick knotted the score at 7-7 with 8:37 remaining in the opening half.
Unfazed by the Irish response, the Chillicothe offense virtually duplicated it.
A 66-yards drive using nine plays ended when senior fullback Dawson Wheeler knifed in on a 3-yards “dive” run. The march was highlighted by a quick isolation throw to Colten Sewell, who, cutting back through pursuit, weaved his way to the LHS 20 for a 20-yards gain. On the next snap, Winder smartly kept on the option to the left side and turned upfield through a big alley for a 16-yards pickup to the Irish 4.
When Carr again rifled the point-after through the uprights from Sewell’s hold of Wheeler’s snap, Chillicothe was right back on top, 14-7, with 4:27 to play in the opening half.
While that was the last point CHS scored, it turned out to be the decisive one.
Johnson’s key role in sharpening Chillicothe’s pass coverage the past two games shines a spotlight on a key factor in the team’s positive evolution to date this season.
Previously, fellow 10th graders Damarcus Kelow and Brock Ward have made their presences felt on defense after seeing very sparing use on the varsity as freshmen.
Rulo agreed with an observation that improving less-experienced and younger players through practices and game play as varsity reserves or in the junior-varsity setting is critical for even a veteran-paced team like this year’s senior-heavy Hornets to be significantly better late in the season.
“You have to keep developing players,” he concurred. “That’s what we’re all about, wanting players to get better. Braxten is a great example of that.”