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Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Football Hornets Make It Home for Playoffs Opener

Run game, opportunistic defense key 34-14 CHS win at St. Joseph: Benton Friday (Oct. 23), clinching district home debut against same Cardinals club next Friday

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Sophomore linebacker Cayden Potter of the Chillicothe High School football Hornets separates Garison Dydell of St. Joseph: Benton from the ball after Dydell had gained good yardage on a first-down carry in the middle of the second period of last Friday's game at St. Joseph. The turnover was one of three the CHS defense forced  – ironically, all on the very first play of Benton possessions – as the Hornets won 34-14.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

ST. JOSEPH — Although it took a physical toll which might or might not impact how their immediate rematch plays out, the Chillicothe (Mo.) HS football Hornets efficiently executed their “backup plan” to reach the modest goal which had been their most-realistic target the last half of the 2020 regular season season.

Like any team, the Hornets had no intention at season’s start of being winless more than three-fourths of the way through their season. However, once the Missouri State High School Activities Association disclosed classification and district assignments a month ago, they had in their mind that, even at 0-7, they might be able to deploy their “emergency parachute” – theoretically-winnable games in weeks eight and nine – to execute a softer landing for the start of postseason play.

Friday night (Oct. 23), on the heels of notching their initial triumph over Kansas City: East at home the week before, the Hornets utilized that escape hatch, using an inexorable running attack that produced three ballcarriers with 90 or more yards and an opportunistic defense that forced and recovered three BHS fumbles to post a 34-14 victory at St. Joseph: Benton.

Reacted CHS head coach Tim Rulo, “A very complete game. Not perfect, but complete in the sense that we were able to take care of things in all phases.”

That win sewed up for the Hornets (2-7) the No. 4 seeding in Class 3 District 8, which means they’ll host a district-quarterfinal game next Friday. In a repeat of 2018, prevailing at Benton in their regular-season finale results in the squads starting the playoffs with an immediate rematch with the Cardinals (1-6) at CHS’ Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II.

Although Benton’s regular-season rating technically put it sixth in the district behind Kansas City: Central, the St. Joseph team’s defeat of Central earlier in the season automatically vaulted it ahead of the KC team into fifth, resulting Benton visiting Chillicothe for the playoffs opener.

Friday’s game in south St. Joseph saw Chillicothe take the lead when junior fullback Damarcus Kelow’s 10-yards inside run behind the blocks of linemen Anderson De Jesus and Landon Swift and lead back Brock Ward capped an 11-plays, 60-yards march on the game’s opening possession.

It then promptly responded when Benton took an 8-7 early in the second stanza on Garison Dydell’s 1-yard smash that followed one of two Cardinals interceptions.

Exactly 2-1/2 minutes later, Kelow ripped into the BHS end zone from 12 yards away, restoring the visitors to the lead, this time to stay. When his third double-digits scoring run of the opening half – this time a 14-yarder – found paydirt 3:15 ahead of halftime, with Griff Bonderer’s successful point-after kick, Chillicothe took a 20-8 lead into the halftime locker room.

After the CHS defense forced a 3-and-out on Benton’s opening possession of the second half, Kelow popped through a big hole for a 20-yards run that put him already at 138 yards in the game and left him only 62 from 1,000 for the season. However, as he landed after colliding with a Benton defensive back, he sustained an injury which left him standing on the sidelines the rest of the night and potentially questionable for the upcoming rematch.

Without their best “power” back, the Hornets lost their offensive flow for a time, opening the door for a possible Benton comeback.

That seemed perhaps destined to become a reality when a 10-plays, 64-yards Cardinals drive was capped by Caleb Arrington’s catch of a 15-yards touchdown pass from Tyler Murphy with still 3:55 remaining in the third period. That made it 20-14.

Challenged, Chillicothe stepped up.

Helped by excellent field position provided by a Benton penalty on its touchdown play, the Hornets regained a 2-scores lead in less than two minutes.

Even with Kelow’s initial replacement, Corbin Rodenberg, suffering an injury of his own, the Hornets sprung sophomore Cayden Potter, Kelow’s backup the first half of the season, free for a 34-yards touchdown run. When quarterback Gage Leamer carried the ball in on the conversion attempt, Chillicothe led 28-14 and had reassumed control.

“What a great example of the ‘next guy’ stepping up, both on offense and defense,” Rulo praised, noting that most of the Hornets who went down during the contest play extensively on both sides of the ball.

“I guess one of the things that’s been a positive effect from this season, because we have had to play so many different guys, is we do have a lot of (experienced) depth. You don’t ever want to see anyone get injured, but, if they do, right now we feel good about having the next guy ready to go.”

After their defense forced another BHS punt, the Hornets clinched their needed win by moving 65 yards in nine plays over 4:15. Tucker Wagers went the last seven yards with 7:34 to go, his 10th carry of the game leaving him with 90 yards overall.

Having entered the regular-season denouement at what Rulo considered their healthiest of the season, the Hornets limped back from St. Joseph with about a half-dozen front-line players nursing ailments, at least some likely to prevent them from playing in the rematch.

Depending on how many are able to answer the bell at Bob Fairchild Field next Friday at 7 p.m., making the sequel follow the plot line of the original could be more challenging.

Statistically in Friday’s CHS victory, in addition to Kelow’s three TDs and nearly 140 rushing yards and T. Wagers’ 90 more, Potter picked up 91 on 15 carries as Chillicothe racked up a season-high 382 ground yards. That happened even while rotating several backups through the interior line positions to deal with injuries.

“The option game is so much fun to watch when it’s being run through all three phases – the ‘dive’ (inside handoff to the fullback), the quarterback keeping it, and then the pitchout,” Rulo remarked.” We saw that tonight.”

Adding sheen to the yardage output was that not once was the ball mishandled on the 57 runs.

“I thought our handling of the ball (and) the running of the football was outstanding,” saluted the CHS head coach.

Equally important to the run game’s extreme productivity was the Hornets’ defense’s timely forcing of three BHS turnovers.

While that total only balanced out three Hornets giveaways (two interceptions and one special-teams fumble), it was when the CHS defenders took the ball away which was key.

The first came on Benton’s initial snap after Kelow’s go-ahead touchdown run in the middle of the second period. Although it didn’t directly lead to points, the Potter-forced and Rodenberg-recovered fumble prevented the Cardinals from having a chance to make an immediate response to the second CHS TD. It also set up a situation which did pave the way for Hornets points.

Following that initial takeaway, Chillicothe turned the ball over on downs at the Benton 20 3-1/2 minutes before intermission, but, once more, on the very first BHS offensive play, the Hornets’ defense brought the Hornets’ offense back on the field.

As quarterback Murphy rolled out to his right, looking to pass, sophomore Brock Miller came up from his outside linebacker spot to grab him, spin him, and separate the ball from Murphy’s grasp. Although Miller came away from the play injured when he and Potter collided, Hornets lineman Trey Tipton covered the ball at the Benton 14. On the next play, Kelow bolted into the end zone easily with a nice cut to daylight on his right as he initially headed up the middle. 

Perhaps most pivotally, the Chillicothe defense stepped to the fore late in the third period right after Benton had moved within six points.

The Hornets fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, giving the hosts the ball at the Chillicothe 46 with a chance to tie or take the lead and seize major momentum with a touchdown.

Instead, yet again on the Cardinals’ first play of the possession, top BHS threat Dydell was separated from the football by Leamer and Rodenberg again grabbed it at the 43.

Reprieved by the “D,” the Hornets’ offense required only five plays to cover the 57 yards to an insurance touchdown, even overcoming a holding penalty in the process. When the offensive line created the crease Potter exploited for his 34-yards dash to the Sparks Field east end zone, Chillicothe was up by two scores again, rather than potentially trailing, and the game’s die finally was cast.

“Our defense has been playing so ‘hungry’ here the last couple of weeks, just swarming to the ball,” praised Rulo. “… When you get guys ‘hungry’ to (get to) the football like that and you get after it, you create those takeaways, those turnovers by the other team, and that’s just what you want.

“When you have a ‘hungry’ defense that takes the ball away, it allows your offense to feel like it can take more ‘shots’ (higher risk/reward plays). It can maybe try to stretch the field a little bit in the passing game or do some other stuff, because you know your defense is going to hold (the opponent) and get the ball back.”

By closing the regular season with two triumphs, this year’s Hornets avoided being the program’s first 1-win team since 1955. This year’s regular-season ledger most recently matches the 2-7 mark the 2012 Hornets fashioned. That year’s squad then knocked off Macon on the road to start its district playoffs before losing in the district semifinals to wind up 3-8.