Goals from Baxter, Cosgrove in opening 12 minutes key title-share-clinching 3-1 home triumph over St. Joseph: Benton Thursday (Oct. 17, 2019)

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Returning the majority of their varsity roster from a 6-13 2018 season which saw them finish at .500 and in the middle of the pack in the Midland Empire Conference title chase, this fall’s Chillicothe (Mo.) HS soccer Hornets were expected to play better and have improved won-lost fortunes. However, with only one higher-profile player within the conference framework back, a brand-new goalkeeper to find and break in, and a roster still top-heavy with underclassmen, the ninth season of head coach Tim Cunningham’s tenure as head coach seemed earmarked for some modest advancement that, hopefully, could set the stage for some loftier 2020 aspirations.
You can say now, without fear of contradiction, that the 2019 Hornets have check-marked those expectation boxes. They have played better and improved their results fortunes. They have advanced beyond what the 2018 squad did. They will have loftier 2020 aspirations.
What also now can be said unequivocally, thanks to Thursday’s (Oct. 17) 3-1 home victory over St. Joseph: Benton, is that this season’s CHS booters have surpassed all those projections and etched the squad indelibly into program history.
For the first time ever, since the inaugural year of Hornets soccer in 2007, the Chillicothe Hornets are Midland Empire Conference champions.
While inarguably there have been better CHS boys’ squads in the past 13 seasons, the performance of this year’s team – combined with altered circumstances over the past couple of years – has put the 2019 team into the books as the first CHS boys’ champions of the pitch.
Riding the early thrust of goals from Mason Baxter and Drake Cosgrove in the first 13 minutes of play Thursday, the Hornets avenged a September 1-0 loss to Benton in a non-conference meeting and clinched no worse than a share of this season’s MEC laurels.
Chillicothe (8-7-1) wrapped up conference play with a 6-1 record, eliminating Benton from the title race in the process by dealing the Cardinals their second MEC loss of the season.
Also falling by the wayside Thursday was Maryville, which sustained its second conference loss by a 5-3 margin at Kansas City: St. Pius X.
According to results and standings kept and circulated by the conference’s executive secretary, only St. Pius X – which handed Chillicothe its only loss last week –  matches Chillicothe in owning one league loss to date, but SPX has three MEC matches remaining, including against capable opponents Benton and Savannah. The Kansas City squad must capture all three – the last of which won’t be until Oct. 28, due to a postponement – to be co-champion with the Hornets. Any Warriors loss would make CHS outright champ.

Chillicothe’s first conference fütbol title – its outstanding 2013 and 2014 squads that went 6-1 in league play both were stymied by since-departed MEC member Smithville – was something of a spastic achievement, schedule-wise, but was anchored in steady performance through the 7-matches slate.
Even with a young squad, the Hornets benefitted from a heavily-front-loaded conference schedule which saw them play four MEC matches in the season’s first 20 days, a stretch when most other MEC teams were playing only one or two and St. Pius X none.
When CHS banked wins in each of those first four, highlighted by a 2-1 home win over Maryville on Sept. 9, it both boosted their confidence and heaped pressure on other contenders to come and catch them. Thus far, none has.
Having missed their first opportunity to assure themselves of at least a shared championship when they lost at St. Pius X last week, the Hornets made sure none could pass them in the league Thursday, generating a solid performance, start to finish, against a foe they knew, first-hand, was dangerous.
The opening minute of the match saw Benton pressure the CHS goal and reap a quick, always-dangerous, corner kick opportunity from the offensive right corner. When Chillicothe managed to get the ball sent upfield away from its goal, it breathed an early sigh of relief. A short time later, it gave the Cardinals no such reprieve.
Just as the clock moved into the third minute of the match, Hornets sophomore forward Drake Cosgrove, in the center of Bob Fairchild Field on the CHS offensive end, sent a pass ahead to his right into the path of speedy forward Mason Baxter near the front edge of the Benton penalty area.
Chillicothe’s leading scorer on the season won the race to the ball with one Cardinal, then tucked the ball to the inside and slipped past him. As another back came to pressure him, Baxter had the ball get far enough ahead of him that fine BHS goalkeeper Ethan Colwell, already moving out toward the Hornet, had time to beat Baxter to the ball.
Instead of giving up on the play, however, Baxter continued forward and, with himself, the ’keeper, and defender all in close quarters, Colwell somehow missed connections on his attempt to grab the ball off the artificial turf. When it squirted behind him to the right, Baxter’s forward momentum allowed him to get to it first and, from about eight yards out, he directed the ball into the vacated net for a 1-0 Chillicothe lead after only 2:37. Cosgrove picked up his seventh assist of the season for his initial setup on what became Baxter’s team-leading 18th goal.
Over the next 8-10 minutes, both sides showed the capability of generating scoring threats, but neither could get a clear-cut shot that might budge the score.
In the 12th minute, however, after the CHS defense repelled a Benton attempt to create another chance, the ball was sent ahead from about midway on the Chillicothe defensive end to Baxter right around midfield, setting the stage for one of the most picturesque and polished scoring plays of the season.
Hurrying down the right side on the dribble, the CHS junior’s speed forced a defender pursuing from the inside to give ground to try to angle him off. Reading that, as well as aware that teammate Ben Cueni-Smith was about parallel to him to his left, the Hornet pulled a pass to his left behind the pursuing Cardinal and right onto sophomore Cueni-Smith’s feet in perfect stride.
With a single touch to create an open passing lane, Cueni-Smith quickly relayed the ball on to the center of the pitch where Cosgrove was alertly “filling” from the opposite side into a gap in the retreating Benton back line. With perfect timing – not stopping the ball to set up his steps, which might have given Benton players a chance to close in on him and block his look at the net, Cosgrove triggered a right-footed shot from about 20-22 yards away from the Benton goal. The rising shot curled slightly to the left as it sailed toward the far (right) side of the BHS net, carrying enough pace to easily sail past the goalkeeper and in for his fifth goal of the season a 2-0 Chillicothe lead after about 12-1/2 minutes.
That early cushion allowed the Hornets to focus more on defensive coverage, which it did with great aplomb, but they wisely did not shrink back into a full defensive “cocoon.” Instead, they continued to look for chances to push the ball up the pitch and attack, preventing Benton from pushing extra players up to the midfield area and beyond.
As a result, both sides got the ball deep into the other’s end, but generally were kept away from the most dangerous scoring areas. A few corner kicks developed, as well, but were not cashed in. Over the next 20 minutes following Cosgrove’s goal, Chillicothe had the best scoring chances, but could not solve Colwell again.
As the end of the opening half began to draw near, however, that changed.
With just over six minutes left in the half, Cueni-Smith had the ball in the center of the pitch with Baxter ahead of him on his right. The 10th grader smoothly played a through ball between BHS defenders just as his teammate accelerated past them on the outside, letting Baxter out-race them to the ball about 25-30 yards from the Cardinals’ net.
Baxter touched the ball further ahead as he got to it and the Benton netminder gambled that, again, it was far enough that he could get to it first. However, this time, he calculated wrong.
A few yards inside the Benton “18” (penalty area), Baxter reached the ball first. With Colwell sprawling helplessly a few yards ahead, the Chillicothe standout hooked a ground-hugging, right-footed shot toward and into the far (east) side of the south goal at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II. With 5:58 left in the first 40 minutes, the hosts held a 3-0 lead on Baxter’s 19th goal of the season off Cueni-Smith’s team-high 12th helper.
Given the way the half had been played to that point, it seemed probable that Chillicothe would own that 3-goals lead at halftime, but Benton was unpersuaded.
After getting the ball close to the Hornets goal with just over two minutes to go, only to see CHS drive it over the sideline, Benton’s strong-armed Quinton Redemer handled the throw-in and flung it high and far into the goalmouth area. Over the course of perhaps five seconds or more, multiple players from each team tried to get enough of a piece of the ball within 8-10 yards of the Chilliothe goal to either get a shot on net or drive the ball out of danger.
Finally, in the scramble, Benton senior middle forward Jawid Alemi, the Cardinals’ most-dangerous scorer, got a crack at it and popped the ball past CHS goalkeeper Jaxon Albertson and other Hornets into the net. Only 1:48 shy of intermission, the visitors were back in business, down only 3-1.
That made the early minutes of the second half hyper-critical.
A well-earned Benton shot or a Chillicothe mistake that led to the ball finding the back of the CHS net any time in the first 5-10 minutes of the half effectively would make it anybody’s match the rest of the way.
Conversely, another CHS goal would reestablish Hornets control of the match or, at the least, a scoreless stretch would blunt some of the carryover Benton momentum from the late first-half goal and turn the clock into an ever-increasing ally of the hosts.
The last scenario proved to be the one which played out, but it was helped along by the Hornets’ players heeding their coaches’ admonition not to try to “sit” on the 2-goals lead.
As in the first half, rather than shrink back in a “prevent” defense that could allow Benton to build ever more pressure in the CHS end of the pitch and perhaps create a momentary mistake that led to an earned or fluky goal, Chillicothe continued to look to push the ball up the field with either multi-player rushes or long, driving kicks into open space behind the BHS back line.
Three or four times, the Hornets looked to be on the verge of getting a clean, high-value shot on goal from less than 20 yards, but never quite ended up getting it. A couple of attempts went wide and a couple were either blocked or slowed by retreating defenders.
While Chillicothe couldn’t quite get that desired “insurance” goal that rebuilt its 3-goals lead, that dedication to still playing offense kept Benton from being able to fearlessly gamble and push an extra man or two into its attacks.
As a result, the more “even” numbers when the Cardinals were able to work into the CHS third of the pitch allowed Chillicothe’s effective utilization of its “layering” defensive approach to deny any prime scoring chances for the visitors. Every look a Benton player thought he might have at Albertson and the goal came with another Hornet in the way, as well.
The result was what Chillicothe and its fans hoped for at a minimum – a scoreless last 40 minutes which allowed them, at the final whistle, to celebrate the team’s historic accomplishment.
At match’s end, CHS sophomore goalkeeper Albertson had seen a modest eight shots on frame, stopping seven.
While CHS waits, over the next 5-10 days, to see whether it wears the conference crown alone or with St. Pius X, it will stay busy with preparations for the Class 1 district tournament it will host.
The first of three remaining regular-season contests will come virtually right away as Mexico pays a visit to Litton Stadium II for a noon game Saturday (Oct. 19).