Teams' Midland Empire Conference opener saw CHS drive 73 yards in 20 plays over nearly 10 minutes on game's opening series to seize 7-0 lead. Defending MEC champs then took over, finding paydirt on nine of 11 possessions
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
MARYVILLE, Mo. — A storybook beginning to the Chillicothe High School football Hornets’ 2020 Midland Empire Conference opener against the Maryville Spoofhounds last Friday not surprisingly soon segued into a grisly slasher film once the home team’s offense took the field.
The still-inexperienced Hornets, heavy underdogs as they called on the defending league champs, stunned their hosts – and perhaps even themselves – by grinding out a vintage-CHS 20-plays, 73-yards touchdown march which consumed close to 10 minutes on the contest’s opening possession.
Maryville’s offense responded much more rapidly, skimming the ball 62 yards to paydirt in six plays and less than two minutes to close the gap to 7-6. That set a pattern of MHS scoring efficiency which ultimately produced a 62-7 Spoofhounds romp.
“It was good,” Tim Rulo, Hornets head coach, said of his team’s first possession. “Our guys responded well. Things were clicking. … I was so proud of those guys, that they were able to come out and do that.”
The initial CHS possession saw no less than 6-for-6 conversion of third-down situations, mostly because the Hornets consistently “stayed ahead of the ’sticks,” in terms of the distance they needed to convert on those third-down plays.
A third-and-5 completion from Gage Leamer to Braxten Johnson provided the first of those conversions, followed by Tucker Wagers’ pickup of seven just across midfield when he needed six on an option-left pitch.
A Spoofhounds offside infraction then turned third and six into third and one, allowing Ga. Leamer’s sneak to provide a fresh set of downs at the MHS 37. Another Johnson-from-Ga. Leamer hookup for eight – this time on second and nine – set up another third-and-short quarterback sneak that continued the march.
On third-and-3 from the 19, the Hornets signalcaller once more followed the surges of center Anderson De Jesus and guards Trace Rardon and Nick Greenslate, who had to come in when starter Josh Watterson went down on the opening play of the drive. He reached the 16, giving the Hornets their fifth first down already.
Damarcus Kelow’s 8-yards gain over right guard on first down put the ball inside the Maryville 10, setting up yet one more quarterback sneak that made it first and goal.
Ga. Leamer, who entered nursing a tender ankle, tweaked it on that carry, prompting use of a timeout to allow him to stay on the field. From the 5, a pair of Kelow blasts got the ball to the 1, setting up one more third-down situation.
Not surprisingly, even considering the CHS quarterback’s ankle issue, the call was for another sneak, one the front line made successful yet again as Ga. Leamer landed across the Maryville goal line after a march that consumed 9:20 of game time. When senior Ben Pithan, back from a slight groin muscle pull that idled him the previous week, kicked the extra point, Chillicothe completed a virtually-picture-perfect opening drive.
“You can’t ask for much better than that,” marveled Rulo in post-game remarks. “A 20-play drive, went 73 yards – gosh, you don’t even draw them up that well.”
“That’s exactly what you want to do,” he added. “When you have a great team like Maryville, you don’t want to let their offense have the ball, and we were able to do that.”
After Maryville hit paydirt on its first series, but clanked the left upright with its point-after kick, Chillicothe maintained the lead at 7-6.
After its second series went 3-and-out, CHS nearly got a potential break which might have altered the game favorably for the Hornets (0-3, 0-1 conf.). Instead, it went in the hosts’ favor as, fumbling Griff Bonderer’s short punt, MHS was able to recover it at the CHS 35.
After gaining a first down at the Hornets’ 18, senior running back Trey Houchin slipped out of the backfield on the right side unnoticed, gathered in Conner Drake’s short pass in the open and on the run at about the 15, and dashed up the sideline for the go-ahead score 1:33 into the second stanza.
A failed 2-points conversion try still kept Chillicothe within five, 12-7, and the Hornets tried hard to make that work to their advantage.
Beginning from their own 26, they used a 10-yards run by Kelow and 12-yards Ga. Leamer-to-Johnson connection to advance across midfield. After earning another first down at the MHS 34 with three more runs, they stared at a fourth-and-4 from the Spoofhounds’ 24.
The crucial call was a handoff to Kelow off the left side where his initial surge was halted at the 25, but, with extra effort, he pushed forward across the 25 as he fell. Unfortunately for the Hornets, when the yardsticks were brought out to measure for the first down, the ball had been spotted about an inch away from extending the possession. With another inch gained, the Hornets might have found renewed momentum and punched the ball into the end zone for a go-ahead score that might have altered both teams’ psyches, regardless of Maryville’s earned self-confidence entering the action.
“That was really close,” Rulo mused. “Gosh, just came up a fraction of an inch short, but again we were able to do some good things. Just not the outcome you want.”
Even when two long Connor Weiss runs, the second a 27-yards touchdown gallop, fueled the Spoofhounds’ ensuing possession, leading to a 20-7 lead, the game Hornets refused to concede.
Starting at their 36 with about 2:15 left in the half and no timeouts available, Ga. Leamer’s third-and-10 11-yards strike to Johnson earned them more plays from near midfield. The next call sent senior slotback Tucker Wagers straight down the right seam, where he managed to get about a step behind the MHS safety covering the middle of the field. The ball was delivered to him just a bit short, causing him to slow just enough that the safety could reach out and pull him down at the Spoofhounds’ 15 with just under 30 seconds remaining in the half.
Suddenly and unexpectedly threatening to get back within a score, the Hornets followed a clock-stopping spike with two incompletions. Finally, on fourth-and-10, a back-shoulder fade route throw for Johnson on the left side momentarily looked to be a possible completion, but the receiver couldn’t quite slow his momentum enough to reach the ball as it sailed behind him, incomplete.
Still, within 20-7 at intermission and having twice threatened to be even closer, Chillicothe came out of the locker room for the second half ready to go for broke as it kicked off.
Pithan struck his onside kick just as intended and the ball squirted close to a pursuing Hornet after going the needed 10 yards. However, Maryville reserve running back Maven Shurvington got his hands on the ball first and secured it at the MHS 47.
With the favorable field position, the Spoofhounds rapidly ripped off three double-digits gains before wingback Cade Wilmes went around the left side for a 9-yards score only 1:09 into the third period.
Chillicothe then fumbled the ball away at its 30 on the first play of its subsequent possession and Maryville (2-1, 1-0 conf.) punched it in in two plays to ignite the rout. MHS eventually scored all except two times it had the ball on the night.
“We tried the onside kick, which was almost (successful) there, too,” recapped Rulo. “The ball was right there (to be grabbed by a Hornet). It was a great onside kick by Ben Pithan and we didn’t recover it. They were able to score and, after that, the wheels fell off the cart a little bit.
“That’s on us as coaches. We need to coach guys up better, because we tried to bring in some different guys, younger guys at that point.”
The only stops the Chillicothe defense, which was without two starters – juniors Brock Ward at linebacker and Christian Peniston at nose guard, got were when the ’Hounds took possession at their own 15 with five seconds left in the first half and in the third period when, after the Hornets – trailing 35-7 – turned the ball over on downs at their own 25, a first-play pass was niftily intercepted by free safety Braxten Johnson at the CHS 2.
Johnson’s theft typically proved to be only a temporary reprieve from the MHS points deluge. Four plays after it, one of three second-half fumbles CHS lost was followed by a 23-yards touchdown pass to senior running back Weiss for his third TD of the game.
Statistically, after successfully inching the ball nearly the length of the field on their opening possession, the Hornets netted only an additional 130 total yards the rest of the way. Their 198 total yards in 66 snaps was dwarfed by Maryville’s 404 yards of offense, 352 of which came on only 33 carries.
Senior Weiss, unable to play the previous week while quarantined for possible exposure to COVID-19, exposed the Hornets’ defense to the heels of his shoes nearly every time he touched the ball. He gained 133 yards on a mere seven carries in addition to his scoring reception.
Chillicothe’s best performer on the night was Johnson. He caught four passes for 39 yards and, defensively, was in on a team-leading eight tackles – six unassisted – in addition to his pickoff.
Already minus two starters and a would-be primary reserve at the start of Friday’s game, Chillicothe quickly saw starting offensive end Max Wagers’ night end when he tried to use his left arm to brace himself as he fell heavily while returning on the opening kickoff. According to Rulo Sunday evening, that injury turned out to be a broken clavicle (collarbone), which will sideline the sophomore indefinitely.
Watterson went down on the first offensive snap, returned for a bit in the second quarter, and then left for good.
“The injury bug has been biting heavily,” Rulo acknowledged even before learning the full extent of M. Wagers’ injury. “… It’s hard if you don’t have all of your ‘bullets,’ but you’ve got to have the next man ready to go.
“That’s why you coach all the kids; you don’t just coach 11.”
CHS now will shift focus to trying to salvage its Homecoming game against Cameron next Friday.
Cameron (2-1) could not follow up its blowout, shutout wins over two dismal Kansas City public school teams when it opened MEC play Friday. The Dragons were dispatched 42-22 at home by Kansas City: St. Pius X.