2021 Season Opens for Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Football Hornets at Marshall Friday With Much Optimism

Game time pushed back to 7:30 p.m. tonight, it was announced this morning

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
The 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets, with new head coach Chad Smith, are slated to play their first game at Marshall this Friday.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Any sports team’s season opener comes with a degree of uncertainty – often many degrees. The 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets debut at Marshall Friday (Aug. 27) even tossed in an unusual one – what would be the game site – that lingered a day or two into game week before apparently finally being settled.

Offseason damage/vandalism to the grass Cecil Naylor Field at Marshall High School led to seemingly-belated resodding of the field only a few weeks before the season opener, the C-T has been told. Given that, even in the most-favorable of conditions, much less the recent heat wave and limited rain, new sod naturally requires a month or longer to extend its root system into the subsoil, the question was whether playing this game on Naylor Field would result both in unstable footing and potential injury risk for the players and the possibility that substantial portions of the new grass would be torn out of place, essentially re-damaging the field to a point where it might be unusable for subsequent scheduled MHS home games.

However, after initial indications that the game might be – and perhaps was likely to be – shifted to Marshall’s Missouri Valley College campus and its artificial-turfed Gregg Mitchell Field, Hornets head coach Chad Smith was advised only this past Tuesday that the site would be Naylor Field.

That only addressed the “where” uncertainty, however. The question of “when” the game would start settled into the “to-be-determined” category when the late-August heat wave moved back in to the area.

Finally, this (Friday) morning, it was shared by Chillicothe High director of athletics Dan Nagel that, with afternoon temperatures anticipated to peak in the low 90s and the reading at the scheduled 7 p.m. game time projected to be barely under 90 with a heat index above that, kickoff had been pushed back 30 minutes to 7:30 p.m..

Chillicothe HS football at Marshall Aug. 27

Whenever and wherever the Hornets and long-time opponent Owls go at it, it will be a meeting of squads looking to improve on a 2020 campaign in which their combined wins total was a meager five (three by Chillicothe). Marshall won last year’s generally evenly-played opener 21-7, exploiting a couple of key Chillicothe special-teams mistakes in the second half to prevail.

As the foes square off in the first game of the season for a 14th-straight year, Chillicothe has a new head coach, Chad Smith, while Marshall, still guided by Adam Huse, is replacing its all-time leader in passing yardage and touchdowns, along with its two best 2020 offensive linemen (one due to injury, the other by graduation), and a couple of its best defenders.

The Owls are expected to give quarterbacking time to both a junior and sophomore during the game while routinely lining up in 3- or 4-wide receiver sets aimed at spreading the defense both horizontally and vertically, even while likely looking to run the ball with either the quarterback, running back Isaac Jackson, or wide receiver Axavier Reed.

“The emphasis is to run the ball better and be more balanced,” Huse told the Marshall Democrat-News, acknowledging the departure of 3-years starting quarterback Ben Haug takes away the improvisational and quick-adjustment component Haug provided.

Either as a passing target from a wideout position, on “jet sweeps,” or even handing off to him from a running back position, Reed will be a potential “playmaker” the MHS coaches work to utilize often.

“We’ve got to get the ball in his hands,” Huse confirmed to the Democrat-News.

Marshall is considered to have wideouts with speed to run deep routes, but their catching ability and the ability of the unproven quarterbacks to deliver the deep ball accurately will need to be established, but the Hornets did show some vulnerability to the deep passing game during their “jamboree” scrimmage against Hallsville last week.

“We have to make sure we get ‘over the top’ and nobody gets behind (us),” Smith acknowledged after last week’s session at Moberly.

Because of the spread formations, former defensive coordinator Smith and his CHS co-defensive coordinators for 2021 – Aaron McQuinn and Roman Cranmer – will try to utilize the positional flexibility they’ve worked to develop during the offseason, as well as the breadth of players with mobility to provide downfield coverage while still having enough bodies around the spot from where the ball is snapped to deny much rushing yardage.

While the Hornets have some hefty defensive linemen, the Marshall offensive approach and smaller line – only two expected starters are listed as being over 200 pounds – likely will lead to CHS utilizing some of its more-agile linemen at interior positions.

Chillicothe brings back a defensive lineup-full-plus of players who saw extensive playing time last year and also has senior linebacker Brock Ward available after an injury he sustained about midway through last year’s opener effectively ended his season.

Offensively, the Hornets largely will line up in the familiar “T” formation used for more than a half-century during the Bob Fairchild and Phil Willard coaching eras before now-departed head coach Tim Rulo installed the “flexbone” during his three years.

Damarcus Kelow, a 215-pounds senior who rushed for over 1,300 yards last year, will be the most-used ballcarrier as long as he’s healthy. He is anticipated to be used less on defense this year, which could make him even more dangerous as a runner.

Aside from him, the halfback ranks offer depth and multiple options, personnel-wise, whether in terms of size, speed, blocking ability, and even pass receiving. One expected starter – senior Braxten Johnson – led the team in receiving yardage and catches as an end last year.

At quarterback, returning senior starter Gage Leamer will take the most snaps, assuming health, but junior Griff Bonderer, the projected 2022 starter, almost certainly will get his feet wet as varsity signalcaller and see some time there in most games. Bonderer also will be on the field on offense at end on occasion, too, in addition to being a starting cornerback on defense.

Chillicothe’s biggest uncertainty in the opener will be how the overhauled offensive line operates. Only one starter from 2020 – center Anderson DeJesus – is back and he is a health question mark for the opener after being diagnosed with a concussion part-way through preseason.

If he can’t go at Marshall, the entire “O” line will be new with Carson Rhodes stepping in at center between sophomore Ethan Davis and freshman Bo Smith at the guards and seniors Cameron Fleener and Christian Peniston at the tackles. Given the heat expected during Friday’s game, look for reserves, including 6’7”, 335-pounds junior Cooper Murphy, to be rotated in with some regularity.

Ward and junior Corbin Rodenberg, the starting linebacker duo, also will man the tight end spots, while others like Bonderer, Johnson and Max Wagers could come in for formations which utilize a split end or two. With Johnson formerly having played split end and Ward and Rodenberg also having been running backs, Smith could change the look of the offensive formation play to play with experienced, capable players without having to make any substitutions, potentially a strategic plus.

Given their greater degree and depth of experience and Marshall’s lack of experience at quarterback and relative inexperience at running back, the Hornets appear to deserve “favorite’s” status heading into the game.

Considering, with a squad largely devoid of varsity-level experience they out-gained the more-experienced, Haug-led Owls a year ago, only to be undone by a failure to finish long drives and a costly miscue each on a kickoff return and punt attempt, Chillicothe should take the field confident it can prevail if it plays relatively-error-free football, physically and mentally.

Aside from DeJesus, the only health availability matter CHS is dealing with is junior Cayden Potter’s injured hand/wrist. He’s been able to do all conditioning training through the preseason, Smith reports, and it is hoped he’ll get clearance from his doctor to begin contact work next week. Potter is expected to be a key contributor on both offense and defense, once available.