Given Green Light, Green Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Hornets Hope for Strong Gridiron Season

Staff Writer
Chillicothe News
Junior wide receiver Braxten Johnson of the 2020 Chillicothe High School football Hornets stretches out to make a leaping catch of junior quarterback Gage Leamer's pass for about a 20-yards touchdown, one of two the varsity offense scored against Trenton during last Friday's (Aug. 21, 2020) closed-to-fans 2-teams "jamboree" scrimmage at CHS' Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II. The Hornets plan to begin their season at Litton Stadium this Friday (Aug. 28), hosting Marshall in a 7 p.m. game.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — After being backed up to its own goal line and facing third down and long yardage, Missouri’s and, specifically, Chillicothe High School’s 2020 high school now, against long odds, surprisingly now stands in a first-and-goal situation.

Barring a last-minute “fumble,” the new gridiron season is set to kick off in two nights, albeit with limited fan attendance. Assuming that occurs, as now expected, the elephant-in-the-room question shifts from “will it be able to start?” to “will it run its full scheduled course?”

“We’re grateful we’ve got week one, excited that we get the chance to play,” CHS third-year head coach Tim Rulo mused for the C-T Sunday, “excited for these seniors and for these varsity guys especially that we’re going to have the opportunity to go and play together.”

Between now and a bit over three months from now, the resolution to that latter inquiry will crystallize, but, in the short term, focus largely will shift from “will it happen?” to “how will it go?”

As they head into a new campaign, the Hornets find themselves in a similar, but not identical, situation – virtually-total turnover in starting personnel from the prior season – to Rulo’s rookie year here.

“These first couple of games, in a lot of ways, hearken back to 2018,” the coach agrees. “We’re all kind of getting a feel for what these guys can do and what these guys can handle.”

The difference – and it figures to be an impactful one – is the less-experienced and inexperienced Hornets of 2020 have two full seasons of playing within Rulo’s guidance and under his system with its now-familiar terminology.

“I feel like we’ve done a good job rotating (younger) guys in a lot over the past couple of years,” he says, “… getting guys in and out, getting them that experience.”

In his debut campaign in 2018, with the transition from the offensive and defensive systems which Chillicothe had used for 55 years to a hybrid approach blending the prior systems with those Rulo prefers, predictably, the Hornets took a while to get airborne, suffering three shutout defeats in a row before scoring and picking up win No. 1 in week four against Cameron. Eventually, the campaign ended on an upward arc with consecutive triumphs over St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond and Benton to close the regular season and then a repeat decision over Benton to begin the district playoffs supplying the lift for a 2019 turnaround in fortunes.

Last year’s senior-laden team, with a year of the Rulo rules under its collective belt, seized on the fortuitous combination of its own improvement with downturns for several squads which had thrashed them the preceding fall. To nearly every observer’s surprise, the ’19 Hornets won seven of their nine regular-season games and, in less unexpected manner, followed them with a pair of district-playoffs Ws before a second blowout loss to Savannah terminated their turnaround season with a 9-3 mark.

2020 opening foe Marshall will bring in a very veteran quarterback in third-year starter Ben Haug, a number of smallish, speedy passing targets, and some experienced linemen.

“He’s big and strong, a very capable athlete,” Rulo says of Haug, who threw 31 times (13 complete) for 121 yards in last year’s 30-7 Hornets win after going 13 for 22 for 189 yards in MHS’ 16-0 victory here two years ago.

Rulo alerts, “Everything’s going to run through him.”

As for what he hopes to see from his own squad, the Hornets’ head man states, “We need to focus on what we can do. That’s be physical, take care of the football, swarm to the ball on defense, and not give up the big play.”

Speaking more generally, Rulo adds, “Friday will give us more of a plumb line of where we’re at and where other schools are at, too.”

Given the unproven nature – at the varsity level – of most of his 2020 crew, the CHS chief expects liberal use of all of the players whose 2019 junior-varsity play and offseason/preseason work have put them in the mix for starting roles.

“A lot of it’s what the game dictates,” Rulo remarks. “… Some guys handle ‘the lights’ (game speed/conditions) a little bit better than others. We’re going to try to rotate guys in.

“Since we weren’t able to do a lot this summer (normal camps, 7-on-7, conditioning, strength training), we’ve got to use this first game as a little bit of trial and error.”

As with any head coach, he’s hoping the ‘error’ aspect will be limited.

“Week one, normally the team that makes less mistakes wins, … let alone this year where things are very unique and people are maybe a little more rusty,” the coach reflects. “That’s why I’m so grateful we had the scrimmage with Trenton (last Friday).”

However, while concerned about a repeat of the procedural penalties and giveaways that hampered his inaugural 2018 team early in the year, Rulo indicated he doesn’t want to paralyze his team this week with fear of those.

“The season’s not going to be won or lost in week one,” he stresses, “but we definitely want to make sure and go out and play our best and be able to let guys go and perform well and be nice and loose.”

Zeroing in on the 2020 Hornets’ personnel who project to see the bulk of the playing time, only one – senior offensive lineman Landon Swift – was a full-time starter a year ago. The now-6’3”, 260-pounds 12th grader, about 20 pounds heavier than his listed 2019 weight, could still see time at the tackle spot at which he started all of last year, but initially seems slotted to be at left guard for most offensive snaps.

A couple of other likely starters against Marshall Friday had some starts last year as sophomores.

Damarcus Kelow, listed 25 pounds lighter than last season at 205, started at least a couple of games at defensive tackle in ’19 and played very extensively. He finished tied for seventh on the team in tackles (40) and led it in quarterback sacks (4-1/2).

Assuming health, he definitely will start on that side of the ball each week, although not always at the same position. Against opponents which returning defensive coordinator Chad Smith sees a need to have more mobility and ability to cover wider areas of the field, including Marshall, Kelow figures to be a down lineman – sometimes at tackle, sometimes at nose guard. Against more-power-oriented teams, the 6’ junior will be

at inside linebacker with a heavier, less-mobile teammate trying to clog the trenches on the line.

Braxten Johnson moved into the defensive lineup at cornerback the last month of the 2019 regular season and had some very good moments there. While he’s a projected first-stringer still this year, the 5’10”, 155-pounder will slide over to free safety.

The other 19 starting positions on offense or defense will be manned by first-time varsity starters when the Hornets take Bob Fairchild Field at a less-populated-than-ever Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II Friday night at 7 p.m.

The degree of personnel change might best be grasped by noting that, of the 4,530 total yards the Hornets gained a year ago, a microscopic 15 of the 3,513 rushing yards and 37 of the 841 passing yards were provided by players still wearing the red and black. In fact, returnees have only 10 varsity carries and five pass attempts cumulatively – all but four of those by likely starting quarterback Gage Leamer.

The 6’, 165-pounds Leamer completed four of five official pass attempts last season, but a couple of those were option-play pitchouts behind the line of scrimmage that, unintentionally, actually traveled forward, making them passes, not handoffs. He also gained 20 yards on six keeps, 14 of those yards on a mopup-time touchdown in the district-playoffs opener blowout of Kansas City: Southeast.

Leamer’s backup under center is senior Braden Constant, one of the team’s 26 returning lettermen.

Joining Leamer in the offensive backfield most of the time will be slot or “A” backs Dan Hoel and Tucker Wagers and either Kelow or Cayden Potter at fullback (“B” back).

Hoel (5’8”, 170, sr.) lost a composite one yard on three rushes as a junior and had a 4-yards “reception” on one of Leamer’s forward pitchouts. T. Wagers (5’9”, 130, sr.) received one handoff or pitchout last season and was dropped for a 4-yards loss. With a bevy of then-senior backs soaking up even most of the “garbage-time” carries in 2019, neither Kelow nor then-freshman Potter (6’2”, 200, soph.) touched the pigskin in varsity action, although Potter ran it plenty on the junior-varsity level.

Barring injury to one or both of them, the two “B” backs in the Hornets’ “veer” formation will get the lion’s share of the carries. Being far smaller than predecessor Jaden Winder, who ran the ball 147 times for 813 yards last season, Leamer seems unlikely to keep the ball in his hands nearly as often.

Top backups for the “A” backs look to be two good-sized Brocks – Brock Ward (6’, 195, jr.) and Brock Miller (6’, 190, soph.). Additional depth, as needed, probably would come from senior Cesar Mares and sophomore Bryce Dominique.

The offensive end spots figure to see multiple players vying to earn the most snaps. Early indications are that Johnson and Max Wagers (6’1”, 165, soph.) could start Friday. Senior Seth Hansen (6’1”, 155) and junior Cam Fleener (6’4”, 205) also should get in.

In the all-important offensive line, Swift will try to provide leadership for four new starters. Anderson De Jesus (5’10”, 210, jr.) will be at center with seniors Josh Watterson (6’, 235) at right guard and Trey Tipton (5’10”, 210) and Trace Rardon (5’10”, 260) at the tackles. Also involved in the fight for action are Evan Loucks (5’8”, 210, sr.) and Christian Peniston (6’, 300, jr.).

While it doesn’t figure to impact this season, the Hornets certainly have some bulk the coaching staff will try to fashion into a formidable line group over the next few years. No less than nine underclassmen (including Peniston) tip the scales currently at 250 pounds or more, including four at 300 or above.

At the start of 2020, the Hornets will bring more savvy to the part on defense than the minuscule amount on offense.

In addition to Kelow and Johnson, the defensive unit will have junior Ward at linebacker after, including one start, he posted 44 tackles (26 unassisted) last year, including one sack. That was the sixth-largest tackles total on the team and the “solos” count was fifth-best.

Against some opponents, Kelow figures to flank Ward at linebacker. When he’s in the line, Potter or senior Kamryn Rinehart (5’11”, 205) are the most likely candidates for the other ’backing post.

Up front on defense, when the slimmer Kelow is utilized at linebacker, some combination of Swift, Peniston, Tipton, and De Jesus projects to occupy the three interior spots. When Kelow has “his hand in the dirt” (playing from a 3-point stance in the line), he could be used either at tackle or nose guard. Rinehart also could provide depth at nose guard.

Outside on the line of scrimmage, starters at outside linebacker/standup defensive end initially will be Fleener and Miller. If something happens to one or the other, Potter probably would step up with junior Ben Pithan and sophomore Isaiah Sprong (6’4”, 200) next in line.

The starting secondary for the opener is likely to have senior T. Wagers and sophomore Dominique (5’7”, 140) at the corners with Hoel at the strong safety/“monster” spot alongside free safety Johnson. Backups include Leamer at safety, M. Wagers and sophomore Griff Bonderer at cornerback.

Then-seniors handled all of the key kicking-game roles a year ago, so those face total overhaul.

As this new season, with all of its preceding COVID-19-related uncertainties and variances from an ordinary offseason, gets underway, mathematical likelihood and observation-based assessment suggests strongly that Chillicothe’s 2020 season will fall somewhere the relative extremes of its prior two seasons.

Being shut out by non-conference foes Marshall and Kirksville to start the season seems unlikely, as does standing 1-6 after seven weeks of play, both of which occurred two years ago. Similarly, winning nine games, as happened last fall, figures to be unlikely, given the amount of starting-lineup turnover.

Most probable, if the season plays out in full, would seem to be a regular-season and final record either at or just above or below break-even. With many underclassmen figuring to have played, that would seem to bode even better for 2021 and beyond.

“The future, we feel, is really bright,” Rulo says with eagerness. “It really is.”

At this point, the Hornets can’t even count on having an opponent to play every week this year.

Pandemic problems could prompt a scheduled foe to be involved in a temporary quarantine or even having shuttered its season, a situation which CHS obviously could find itself in, as well. At this point, the slated week eight home contest with Kansas City: East on Oct. 16 seems most vulnerable to cancellation, but much figures to transpire between now and then.

Slimmed-down junior Damarcus Kelow (15) of Chillicothe High School's football Hornets gets a handoff from classmate and projected starting quarterback Gage Leamer on a left-side "dive" play to begin last Friday's (aug. 21) scrimmage-practice against Trenton at CHS' Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II. As can be seen, the line blocking opened a sizable hole for the play and the 205-pounds Kelow took the ball 40 yards to the end zone, although an illegal-motion penalty that didn't really impact the action technically negated it. The 2020 Hornets are to begin their season at Litton Stadium this Friday (Aug. 28), hosting Marshall in a 7 p.m. game.