Death of St. Joseph: Benton sophomore player last Sunday creates uncertainty about players' motivations, mindsets
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — What shaped up for the home team as a relatively-low-risk game on a night when the on-field action was to share the spotlight with joyfully-proud, pre-game focus on the nearly 20 senior players on the host Chillicothe (Mo.) High football Hornets instead will have a more-somber atmosphere tonight (Friday, Oct. 25) when St. Joseph: Benton’s Cardinals visit CHS’ Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II for the finale of the 2019 regular season.
The focus of this evening’s 7 o’clock duel between Midland Empire Conference squads shifted some at the start of this week when the life of BHS sophomore Aiden Gromowski suddenly, tragically ended only two days after he was nearly full-time participant on defense and occasional offensive back for Benton in its game at Cameron last Friday.
On one of the last dozen or so plays of that game, the 15-year-old not only made a tackle on an outside running play deep in his team’s own territory, but forced a fumble in doing so – a fumble a teammate quickly grabbed and ran 83 yards to the Cameron end zone to reinject hope for a BHS victory for his team.
“It’s tough,” Tim Rulo, CHS head coach, said of the tragedy. “I have lost some players to different things over the years and, gosh, it’s never easy. Hearts are hurting.”
He added, “Our thoughts and prayers are with Benton – the family of that young man, his teammates, his classmates, the coaches, just that community in general.”
Rulo’s previous experiences and understanding some similar type of situation always could be only one fateful moment away for any team obviously informs his approach to coaching and interacting with the young persons in his charge.
“I told the guys even today, ‘Some of you might find it corny that I always tell them I love them and they’re more important than winning and they’re more important than football, but it’s (because of) situations like this that we say that,’” he shared with local reporters after Wednesday’s practice.
Although Rulo intimated that Chillicothe had offered Benton the option of not playing the game and BHS’ players, coaches, and administration collectively opted to do so, tonight’s contest will take place. The Chillicothe coach said he understood from Cardinals head coach Kevin Keeton that Benton players were told they have the individual option to choose not to play, if they feel too emotionally or psychologically conflicted to do so.
Given that, deciphering exactly what might occur between the Bob Fairchild Field sidelines is pure guesswork.
“There’s no recipe or playbook for how to handle that situation,” Rulo acknowledges.
“… I’m sure there’s going to be a mix of emotions (on the part of BHS players and coaches), maybe wanting to win one for him or maybe they don’t feel comfortable playing.”
Had the tragedy not happened, Benton (1-7, 1-5 conf.) would have been a decided underdog to the host Hornets (6-2, 4-2 conf.), although not necessarily as large a one as the teams’ respective records might suggest.
“They’re getting better at the right time,” Rulo assesses, citing the foe’s lopsided win two weeks ago over a Kansas City: St. Pius X team that CHS barely squeaked past and a solidly-competitive showing at a decent and improving Cameron club last week.
“They’re trying to gain some momentum to go make a move in the playoffs. I think they could be a team that upsets a higher-seeded team.”
Depending on what happens in Kansas City tonight when Northeast and Southeast – both winless – clash, it’s possible that, for a second year in a row, Chillicothe and Benton could wind up squaring off in both the regular-season finale and district-playoffs opener the following week.
For that to occur, the Hornets would need to defeat Benton, Northeast would have to top Southeast and jump over Benton into the sixth spot in the district ratings, and Savannah would have to best St. Pius X. In that case, Savannah’s earlier victory over CHS would jump it past the Hornets into the top seeding – even though Chillicothe would have a higher rating – and Benton would slip to seventh, meaning a first-round pairing with second-seeded CHS.
While the Chillicothe and Savannah elements of that equation figure to be reliable, a comparison of Northeast’s and Southeast’s eight prior losses each suggest Southeast, currently bringing up the rear in the district ratings, is a better bet to win their clash tonight. If that does occur, Southeast would move past Northeast, but likely not catch Benton, even if the Cardinals lose. Southeast, as the No. 7 seed, then would become Chillicothe’s probable first-round district opponent next week at Litton Stadium.
Muses Rulo, “Our goal is to be successful this week and hold the (anticipated) No. 2 (seeding) – yeah, we’d like to keep the No. 1 spot, but that would take some miracles to happen – and then be able to host at least two playoff games.
“… (We’re) Excited for the opportunities that are out there. Now we’re just got to take care of Benton.”
Chillicothe again heads into its latest action without significant injury/health problems, aside from the anticipated absence for another couple of weeks of senior back Deon Reynolds, due to a joint problem.
Strategically, coming off a dominating running performance (419 yards) at Kansas City, Kan.: Wyandotte in last Friday’s 35-7 victory, the Hornets will look to again dictate the pace of the game with its run game – accepting big plays, like Dawson Wheeler’s two long touchdown runs last week, if they come, but also content to grind out first downs and extended scoring drives.
However, in part because Benton has shown a tendency to crowd the line of scrimmage against run-heavy foes like the Hornets and because it has shown a lot of different defensive looks, Rulo might try to boost his team’s confidence in the passing game and give postseason foes pause before overloading “the box” by dialing up some downfield pass plays in the early going or giving senior quarterback Jaden Winder the freedom to audible to such plays, based on what he sees as he surveys the defense.
“They’re trying different things, changing things up almost every series or every quarter,” the CHS coach shared Wednesday.
“It’s going to be one of those where you’re going to have to be ready for everything and communicate well up front.”
in terms of Benton’s offense, while it has been running the ball a bit more often than passing it, it’s more of a perimeter and “read” type of run game, rather than a “downhill,” between-the-tackles approach.
“It looks like, on film, they’re just searching to find that ‘identity,’” Rulo commented Wednesday. “… They’ve put up more points these last two weeks. They’re scary.”
Of greatest concern, personnel-wise, is speedy senior Chol Ater, who could line up as anything from an end to a flanker or slot receiver, running back in a multi-players backfield, or even the lone “wildcat” back in a spread formation.
“Getting him the ball in space is definitely an opportunity (for Benton) to score points every time,” asserts Rulo.
Also having shown big-play capability as runners or receivers are regular quarterback Caden Stone, running back Garison Dydell, and ends Mo Blakley and Malique Bennett.
“On film, they look really athletic,” the Hornets coach states, echoing a theme he’s sounded in recent weeks against Wyandotte and St. Joseph: Lafayette, teams Chillicothe’s defense successfully corralled.