Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Football Hornets' Takeaway-Keepaway Tack Tops Kirksville 34-14

Host Hornets made four takeaways to move to 2-0. Kirksville now 0-2

By PAUL STURM, Gannett Newspapers
Realizing no penalties would negate it, 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets junior Griff Bonderer breaks into a smile in the end zone after his 62-yards punt return for a scor minutes into the Hornets' 34-14 victory over visiting Kirksville Friday, Sept. 3, at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium  II.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Productively playing takeaway-keepaway and blending in two special special-teams moments, Chillicothe High School’s Hornets opened 2021 home football play satisfyingly Friday night (Sep with a 34-14 triumph over the visiting Kirksville Tigers.

The victors improved to 2-0 by forcing four turnovers while losing the ball twice – one a “pick six” that threatened to submarine a strong first half, taking a punt return “to the house” barely two minutes in, and forcing a fumble of a kickoff to set up a 20-0 lead seven seconds into the second period.

After Griff Bonderer’s early scoring return and a second CHS score late in the first period, Brock Miller forced a fumble on the ensuing KHS kickoff return which Lucas Reynolds recovered at the Kirksville 18. Five plays later, on the first snap of the second stanza, Corbin Rodenberg’s 6-yards run and James Mathew’s conversion kick put the red-and-black on top 20-0.

“We looked good on special teams,” Hornets head coach Chad Smith said of the unit assistant Ben Coult coordinates.

Chillicothe will commence its Midland Empire Conference play Friday, Sept. 10, by welcoming keen rival Maryville (0-2).

Maryville has lost to two traditionally top-drawer teams, Jefferson City: Blair Oaks and Harrisonville, so its record carries an asterisk. Similarly, both CHS triumphs have been at the expense of winless squads.

Chillicothe led its non-conference week two clash against a former long-time North Central Missouri Conference brother virtually throughout.

Just as the game passed 120 seconds of action, the Hornets landed the first blow with a play they couldn’t have replicated a year ago.

In 2020, the Hornets returned only one punt all season – that on a kick its returner grabbed as he was about to go out of bounds, resulting in zero yards.

Having run back three Marshall punts for 42 yards a week earlier, CHS was positioned to gain possession for the first time in favorable field position after its defense forced a Kirksville punt from inside the Tigers’ 25 after a 3-and-out opening series of the game. It ended up with points, not position on Bob Fairchild Field.

The low boot was fielded by junior Griff Bonderer at the Chillicothe 38 and, after quickly angling past a few would-be tacklers, he found himself moving farther and farther up the west sideline. Picking up several blocks and one non-block by Cameron Fleener coach Smith cited that avoided a possible penalty, Bonderer advanced just inside the boundary all the way to the end zone for a 6-0 lead after 2:09.

“That was outstanding,” the rookie head coach saluted. “There were several good blocks on there all the way down … and Griff did a great job.”

The punt-return score was the Hornets’ first since 2017.

The hosts didn’t stop there.

Following another defensive stop and punt, Chillicothe drove 77 yards in 13 plays over 6:41 to net another TD. After an unanticipated toss sweep to fullback Damarcus Kelow on fourth-and-3 gained 27 yards to the Kirksville 1, freshman Silas Midgyett’s blast up the middle for his second TD of the season capped the Hornets’ first offensive series.

“We have to be able to hit the edges and pass and loosen (opposing defenses) up,” coach Smith said of the use of the 215-pounds Kelow on a wide play, rather than straight ahead.

When Rodenberg stutter-stepped into the end zone from six yards off right tackle following Reynolds’ recovery, the Hornets had established a measure of control, if not command. Despite a couple of wobbles, they didn’t surrender control the final three frames.

Down three scores, Kirksville replied with its only points-producing possession after it posted 41 markers in the opening-week loss to Macon.

A 10-plays, 72-yards drive that included four double-digits gains was capped by Randon Baumgartner’s tough catch of a nearly-deflected-away Ike Danielson left-corner fade-route throw for a 16-yards touchdown pass. When Baumgartner also dove inside the right pylon on the conversion attempt, the Tigers were within 20-8. However, despite a few extended drives, their offense never found paydirt again.

Facing the prospect of going to the locker room at halftime, with a welcomed, but far from safe, 12-points lead, Chillicothe was kicking itself when it couldn’t cash in on Miller’s first of three CHS interceptions of Danielson.

The coverage and reaction to the ball by 2021 Chillicothe High School football Hornets senior free safety Braxten Johnson (17) on a second-quarter pass intended for Kirksville's Jaden Ballinger results in a deflection which CHS junior strong safety/monster back Brock Miller (26) gratefully moved under and intercepted Friday, Sept. 3, at Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium  Miller returned the piickoff 21 yards to the KHS 22, eventuallly leading to a CHS touchdown just before halftime that made it 26-8 at the mid-game break. Chillicothe eventually won, 34-14, to improve to 2-0 this fall.

Set up at the KHS 22 after his 21-yards return of the pass quick-reacting free safety Braxten Johnson ticked past the intended target, the Tigers held fast in a first-and-goal predicament and regained possession at their 4 with 2:40 to play in the half.

Chillicothe’s defense promptly forced another 3-and-out, capped by Midgyett’s 8-yards sack at the 3 on a third-and-3. Although the kick from the KHS end zone was decent, the home team still regained possession at the Kirksville 34 with 1:10 left in the half.

With only one timeout at its disposal, Chillicothe gained eight yards on a first-play run, but neither got out of bounds when it had a chance nor called timeout. Instead, as the clock clicked to a half-minute left, senior quarterback Gage Leamer barely got a lob pass downfield away on second down, but had two receivers all by themselves awaiting it as Kirksville’s pass-coverage issues from week one resurfaced. Senior tight end Brock Ward had the ball come closest to him, catching it easily at about the 2 and stepping across the goal line for a 26-8 lead 27 seconds ahead of intermission.

That pre-intermission score had a chance to be a backbreaker, but a breakdown in CHS pass protection two plays into the third period put the Tigers back within range.

On second and 11 from their own 19 on the second snap of the second half, Leamer – quickly pressured again – had his arm hit by a corner blitzer as he released a pass toward the receiver abandoned by the blitzer. The contact made the ball pop into the air and travel only a few yards, where it fell right into the hands of KHS defensive end Bryce Kertz at the Chillicothe 13. Kertz had no trouble chugging into the end zone untouched, pulling the visitors back within 12, 26-14, less than a minute into the last half.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time working on our play-action pass protection and just our regular pass protection,” confirmed coach Smith after the game. “We’ll have more big-play opportunities if we can do those (well).”

The teams then swapped lengthy marches, but neither yielded points because they were terminated by turnovers – a fumble by Chillicothe at the Tigers’ 31 and a second Hornets air theft, this time by Bryce Dominique on a fourth-down pass that would otherwise have ended the possession as an incompletion.

Regaining the ball at its 10, Chillicothe squeezed any remaining life out of Kirksville hopes by unleashing a 19-plays – all but one of them runs, 90-yards touchdown trek that consumed 9-1/2 minutes of game time.

Twice during it second-and-long Rodenberg runs produced double-digits pickups and first downs. Finally, the Hornets’ only throw in the march was a big one – Leamer finding running back Johnson slipping down the middle for 29 yards to inside the Kirksville 1. The CHS quarterback sneaked in on the next play to  clinch the win with 5:56 remaining.

“That’s awesome,” coach Smith said of the two very long touchdown drives his team fashioned.

Even a fumbled snap on the 2-points conversion attempt turned out well for the Hornets when, in an approximation of the ancient playground-football favorite – the center sneak, the loose ball squirted forward to snapper Isaiah Sprong as he stood about two yards into the end zone.

Statistically, neither side had a 100-yards rusher, although KHS’ Landon Yardley just missed with 98 yards on 17 carries. Rodenberg led Chillicothe with 68 rushing yards, but needed 22 carries to do so. Starter Kelow did not play again after his 27-yards gallop late in the first half left him with 40 yards in four attempts.

Overall, the Hornets managed only 171 ground yards on 50 attempts. Smith felt more could have been reaped on the outside plays.

“I don’t feel like we did a really good job of picking guys up with our blocking on the sweeps. There were several (big-gain) opportunities we missed, where, if we get one guy blocked, (the ballcarrier is) gone. We’ve just got to get better at identifying those guys.”

While Kelow saw only limited use, speedy junior 215-pounder Cayden Potter got into his first game action, with a pair of runs for eight yards, a short pass he bobbled, but then turned into a 21-yards pickup with a tough run, and some use on the defensive side, as well.

“It was huge getting him back in the lineup,” reacted the CHS head coach

Chillicothe’s pass defense, thought to be potentially suspect, limited the Kirksville air attack which threw for more than 300 yards in its opener to only eight completions in 21 attempts for only 64 yards while swiping three throws and recording three sacks.

Linebackers Ward and Rodenberg combined for 16 tackles, half of them unassisted, with senior Ward making six solos among his nine stops. Defensive backs Johnson, Dominique and Miller each were in on five tackles in addition to their pickoffs. Reynolds, Fleener and Midgyett had the three CHS sacks.