Almost-totally-inexperienced Hornets will open 2020 season 'on time,' despite COVID-19 pandemic. Fan attendance restricted to immediate family only
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — While the odds often seemed against it during the summer, Chillicothe High School’s football Hornets, along with a majority of other prep pigskin squads across Missouri, will commence their 2020 season on the originally-scheduled day this Friday (Aug. 28).
With much of out-state Missouri thankfully more-marginally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to date, high school football will kick off this weekend – in some locations, like Chillicothe, with some fan attendance restrictions, but, in others, with no limits on the number of spectators. Almost universally, fans in attendance will be required to have on masks.
Chillicothe’s opening opponent, as it has been since 2008, will be the Marshall Owls, with this year’s clash at CHS’ Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II, which MHS helped ignominiously inaugurate with a late triumph over the Hornets in 2012.
Two years ago in Chillicothe, in the first game of current CHS head coach Tim Rulo’s tenure, Marshall won 15-0 over a highly-inexperienced Hornets club. Last year, with virtually the same roster, Chillicothe won 20-7 at Marshall.
Chillicothe went on to post a sparkling 9-3 record in 2019, while the once-proud Owls continued their lengthy period of mediocrity by finishing 2-8. Marshall is 5-35 the last four years and has not had a winning overall record at season’s end since going 6-5 in 2012. Since then, MHS’ composite record is 11-49.
Back for a third crack at resurrecting the once-vaunted Marshall gridiron tradition are Owls head coach Adam Huse and senior quarterback Ben Haug.
“He’s big and strong, a very capable athlete,” Rulo says of Haug, who threw 31 times (13 complete) for 121 yards in last year’s Hornets win after going 13 for 22 for 189 yards in MHS’ victory two years ago. “Everything’s going to run through him.”
Haug will be joined by some experienced offensive linemen, a number of smallish, speedy passing targets – a couple of which started against the Hornets last year. Xavier Reed and Andre Smith each caught three balls for 76 combined yards
A first-possession Haug touchdown pass actually gave the hosts an early lead over Chillicothe about 12 months ago, but the Hornets answered on their first series, took the lead with a long scoring pass late in the first half, and finally iced it with a 14-plays TD march in the fourth period.
Against the odds, the Hornets prevailed at Marshall last year despite losing the turnovers battle 3-0.
“Week one, normally the team that makes less mistakes (penalties, turnovers) wins, … let alone this year where things are very unique and people are maybe a little more rusty,” Rulo reflected in a visit with the C-T last Sunday.
Marshall is expected to spread the field on offense, routinely aligning with four wide receivers and a single running back with Haug. The anticipation is the Marshall quarterback probably will approach or exceed the 31 passes he attempted in the 2019 clash, particularly since the virtually-all-new CHS lineup doesn’t figure to be able to control the ball and use up the clock the way it did a year ago.
Against what’s expected to be a 3-4 defensive look from the Owls, who anticipate outside linebacker Caden Kraft, a third-year starter, to have a strong year, Chillicothe will send an offensive unit with only senior lineman Landon Swift having started previously. Swift started at a tackle spot all of 2019, but has been moved to guard this year.
Otherwise, every other CHS starter on that side of the ball will be doing so for the first time on the varsity level. That includes junior quarterback Gage Leamer, junior fullback Damarcus Kelow, and senior slotbacks/wingbacks Dan Hoel and Tucker Wagers. Leamer has five passes thrown (four completed) and six carries on his varsity resumé, producing a total of 57 net yards. Kelow never has handled the ball in a varsity game previously and Hoel and T. Wagers combined for a mere five carries for four lost yards on the senior-permeated 2019 Hornets.
Also likely to get in the game at fullback is sophomore Cayden Potter, while junior Brock Ward and sophomore Brock Miller figure to get touches from the slots.
Based on Rulo’s history with the Hornets and considering the lack of varsity experience, the anticipation is CHS again will run the ball north of 80 percent of the time.
On defense, while no full-time starters return for Friday’s hosts, Kelow played a large number of downs on the line a year ago, when he was listed as weighing about 230 pounds. This year, depending on the opponent’s offensive style, he will deploy either in the line as a more-svelte 205 or at linebacker alongside Ward, who started once last year. Those two were among the top eight on the ’19 Hornets in tackles, both getting in on at least 40.
With Haug expected to be looking to throw often, the four linebackers and four defensive backs will be tested, although one of CHS defensive coordinator Chad Smith’s hopes is that a quicker Kelow, who led the Hornets with 4½ sacks a season back, can quickly break down the pocket and reduce the Owls quarterback’s time to find a receiver.
The Hornets’ secondary does have a partial returning starter. Braxten Johnson played right cornerback most of the last month of last season, but has been switched to free safety. T. Wagers and sophomore Bryce Dominique will be the starting corners with sophomores M. Wagers and Griff Bonderer likely to get in, as well. Hoel will be at free safety.
When Kelow plays on the line, Potter will join Ward at inside linebacker. Miller and Fleener are the outside linebackers in the CHS 3-4.
As of Wednesday night, Chillicothe seemed likely to have its full complement of players available, from a health standpoint, no small feat, considering the pandemic and the recent heat wave which is expected to relent this weekend, but not in time for the game.
“You always want to go into the game in week one with all your ‘bullets,’” Rulo acknowledged.
Because of the COVID-19 disruption of normal summer training activities, instructional opportunities, and simulated competitions (like 7-on-7 leagues and tournaments), few coaches – even those with far-more-experienced clubs than Chillicothe – have a strong sense of what their season might hold.
“Friday will give us more of a plumb line of where we’re at and where other schools are at, too,” assesses Rulo.
Of what he and his coaches have been able to try to do through the summer and during preseason practices, as far as developing talent and molding the team into a cohesive unit, the Chillicothe head coach shared last Sunday, “I’ve been really happy. I guess I’ll find out more on Friday.”
True game competition figures to reveal more information on who can do what well when the chips are down, he concurs.
“Some guys handle ‘the lights’ (game speed/conditions) a little bit better than others,” Rulo remarks.
“We’re going to try to rotate guys in. Since we weren’t able to do a lot this summer, we’ve got to use this first game as a little bit of trial and error.”
As for what he hopes to see from his club, the Hornets’ head man states, “We need to focus on what we can do. That’s be physical, take care of the football, swarm to the ball on defense, and not give up the big play.”
“It’s an opportunity for us to grow and make sure we continue to improve and get better,” he declares. “The season’s not going to be won or lost in week one.”
Game time Friday will be the customary 7 p.m.
A limited crowd figures to be on hand as, under blanket preventative measures adopted by all Midland Empire Conference schools, only immediate family members of participating players, band and dance team members, and cheerleaders will be allowed into the stadium.
Because of those attendance restrictions, the school district is permitting live online videocasting of the game (and all 2020 varsity home games).
Uclick TV will present the game live on its uclicktv,com website, company owner and former Chillicothe resident Jim Bligh has disclosed.