After extended struggle, young CHS football Hornets ascended late

COVID-19-marred 2020 season saw strong close after historic string of losses; 12 players gain all-MEC notice

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Twelve Chillicothe High School Hornets were chosen, at some level, to the 2020 all-Midland Empire Conference football team by league coaches last month. From left, that group includes: Front – Bryce Dominique, Corbin Rodenberg, Anderson De Jesus, Dan Hoel, Braxten Johnson; Back – Trey Tipton, Damarcus Kelow, Cameron Fleener, Landon Swift, and Griff Bonderer. Unable to be present for the photo were Tucker and Max Wagers.
  • Junior defensive back Johnson, fullback Kelow first-team all-MEC choices
  • Constant, S. Hansen, Ward, Johnson on coaches' association's Academic All-State list
  • Teams which beat Hornets included two state runnersup and had well over-.500 composite record
  • More than two dozen letter-winners, many with now-vast experience, project to be on 2021 squad

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Twelve 2020 Chillicothe High School football players received some measure of postseason recognition for their on-field play, it was publicly confirmed Sunday, after it previously was announced four had been cited for supplementing their involvement in the sport with high scholastic achievement.

With Midland Empire Conference members Maryville and Kansas City: St. Pius X having advanced all the way to this weekend’s state-championship games – MHS finished second in Class 3 and league champion St. Pius X second in Class 2, as per its policy, public release of the all-MEC football teams was not made until Sunday.

When that announcement came, a dozen Hornets had received some level of positive acknowledgement of the quality of their performances in 18 offensive, defensive, or special teams roles from other coaches around the conference.

Previously, Hornets head coach Tim Rulo had announced at the team’s Nov. 22 postseason celebration banquet-program that six Hornets had been selected to the Missouri Football Coaches’ Association’s Class 3 all-District 8 team.

Four 2020 Chillicothe High School football Hornets – clockwise, from top left, seniors Seth Hansen and Braden Constant and juniors Brock Ward and Braxten Johnson – have earned membership on the Missouri High School Football Coaches Association’s Academic All-State list.

Additionally, he disclosed that seniors Braden Constant and Seth Hansen and juniors Braxten Johnson and Brock Ward had qualified for MFCA Academic All-State status. To earn that distinction, a player must have lettered in football this past season and have had two of three academic qualifiers – at least a 3.5 grade-point average, ranking in the top 10% of his class, and scoring at least a 25 on the ACT college-preparedness standardized test.

Internally, 33 of the CHS program’s 62 end-of-season members – 40 letter-winners and 22 (mostly freshmen) who earned certificates of participation – also qualified for Hornet Scholar-Athlete recognition. More than half of those 62 had a grade-point average of 3.3 or higher and the team’s composite GPA was over 3.2, the coach noted proudly.

“We are champions both on and off the field!” Rulo asserted.

As for those whose on-field play caught the eyes of both Hornets and opposing coaches, the 12 all-MEC honorees included two junior first-team picks – Johnson and Damarcus Kelow.

Fullback Kelow shared the MEC’s top slot for that spot with Trey Houchin of Maryville after rushing for 1,337 yards (5.3 per carry average) and 13 touchdowns. Along the way, he tied a CHS single-game record with 40 rushes (for 132 yards) in the Oct. 2 loss at St. Joseph: Lafayette. That record first was established by teammate Landon Swift’s father Les in a 1985 state-playoffs game.

Johnson, who split time between free safety and cornerback and was an aggressive, generally-sure tackler at 5’10”, 155 pounds, led the Hornets in both unassisted and total tackles. He was credited, under very conservative statistical criteria, with 38 solo stops and 30 assists and paced the Hornets in interceptions (two).

His 68 tackles participated in were 10 more than the nearest Hornet, although that likely was a reflection of both some missed games (due to COVID-19 precautionary quarantine) for a player or two and the near-season-long injury absence of would-be starting linebacker Ward. Johnson’s unassisted tackles total was four more than lineman/linebacker Kelow’s.

Receiving all-MEC second-team spots on offense were senior linemen Trey Tipton and La. Swift, end Johnson, linebacker Kelow, and junior lineman Cameron Fleener.

Were it not for having to sit out two midseason games, the fast-starting Fleener might have out-paced Johnson for the tackles lead. Instead, he finished with 55 total tackles, including 8-1/2 for losses, 1-1/2 quarterback sacks, and two fumble recoveries.

Kelow was No. 5 on the team in total tackles, but was second to Johnson in solos (34). He also paced the Hornets in tackles for loss (8-1/2) and sacks (three, shared with sophomore end/outside linebacker Brock Miller).

Tipton, a full-time 2-ways line starter who probably shared with Fleener the unofficial “honor” of being the players who made the most advancement from the 2019 season to 2020, and jack-of-all-positions La. Swift helped key a stronger-than-expected offensive line that allowed CHS to generate an average of 257 rushing yards per game (4.8 per carry average). Swift, initially shifted from tackle last year to guard for 2020, wound up seeing action at each one of the five interior-line positions, due to injuries and absences.

The offensive line’s spotlight moment of the season came in the loss to eventual state-runnerup St. Pius X in a game Chillicothe nearly rescued late from a 28-points deficit. Fueling the comeback which saw CHS nearly draw within one score in the final two minutes was the ground attack which ultimately resulted in 346 yards and four touchdowns in a new CHS-record 67 carries.

Over the course of the season, the Chillicothe “O” line averaged more snaps per game – 63 (694 offensive plays in 11 games) – than any previous CHS line and the team’s average of 54 carries per game was the program’s most ever. 

The St. Pius X game also produced the second-most CHS offensive plays in a game – 75 – ever and the 595 rushing attempts on the season in 11 games was the third-highest raw total in program history, even though multiple predecessors had participated in three or four more contests.

Joining Kelow in having both a first- and secont-team berth, Johnson was tabbed on the offensive second squad after catching a team-most 22 throws – twice the totals of brothers Tucker and Max Wagers – for a team-most 349 yards. He had CHS’ only two scoring catches of the year.

Voted for by some opposing coaches, but not receiving sufficient support for either the first or second teams were honorable mention Hornets senior T. Wagers at running back and defensive back, sophomore defensive back and punter Griff Bonderer, sophomore linebacker Rodenberg, junior center Anderson De Jesus, defensive linemen La. Swift and Tipton, sophomore kick coverage players Bryce Dominique, senior offensive "specialist" Dan Hoel, and sophomore tight end Max Wagers.

The half-dozen Hornets who gained coaches’ association all-district laurels were Tipton (first-team offensive line), Kelow (first-team at defensive end), Johnson (first-team defensive back), La. Swift (second-team offensive line), T. Wagers (second-team running back), and Fleener (second-team defensive line).

At present, there has been no definitive movement by area media representatives toward generating a Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association northwest all-district team, as has been done for a half-century or longer. If such a compilation is eventually made, a few Hornets – perhaps a total similar to that of the coaches’ group – would figure to have good prospects for inclusion.

All in all, the Hornets’ 2020 season played out very much like it looked it might – even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The novel coronavirus had its impact to be sure, but somehow CHS did what many, many team could not this fall – play every week against the planned opponent.

Even though many players sat out games for health reasons – COVID-19 and otherwise, getting every game in undoubtedly contributed to the progress the roster which began the campaign largely devoid of varsity-level experience had made by season’s end.

Sustaining seven losses in succession to begin the season – the program’s poorest start in over  a half-century, the Hornets nevertheless improved – sometimes incrementally – week after week until finally breaking through with not just one win or two, but three in a row to end the regular season and begin the postseason.

Then, emphasizing that their improvement was no mirage conjured up by facing lackluster opponents, they marched into Richmond and had the district’s top seed on the ropes at halftime and still in trouble late in the third quarter of what proved to be the finale of a 3-8 season.

When two of those eight losses turned out to be against teams which ultimately played for state championships, four of the other six posted either winning or break-even records, and the combined won-lost records of the eight CHS conquerors was a quite-impressive 54-35, considering the extreme level of inexperience the Hornets had entering the season, the team’s final mark could scarcely have been expected to be better. Factor in the clear-cut improvement seen fairly steadily all season and the strong finish and little reason for disappointment in how things played out seems warranted.

With more than a couple of dozen underclassmen eligible to return, including more than half of them players who started full-time or often or who played regularly in a reserve’s role, the CHS pigskin pack should yo-yo back to being highly-competitive in nearly every game in 2021, continuing a 5-years scenario of squads either with a ton of experience or next to none. 

Promisingly, however, that feast-or-famine trend projects to take a hiatus for a little while at least. Of the underclassmen ranks of 2020, eight were juniors who played regularly (and another would-be starter who missed most of the season, due to injury) and seven were sophomores who fit into that same category.

With promising results on the junior-varsity and freshman/“C” team level this fall, the anticipation is that there won’t be the every-other-year dropoff in experience seen of late when 2022 rolls around.

2020 All-MEC FB Offense
2020 All-MEC FB Defense+ST