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Chillicothe (Mo.) HS FB Hornets' Late Rally Bid Falls Short in 27-21 Loss at Kirksville

Paul Sturm
Senior slotback Tucker Wagers of the 2020 Chillicothe (Mo.) HS football Hornets pulls in a second-quarter pass from quarterback Gage Leamer inside the Kirksville 10-yard line during Friday's (Sept. 4) 27-21 CHS loss at Kirksville.

KIRKSVILLE — With a starting lineup almost totally-devoid of returning starters and a roster largely lacking in tested varsity experience, this year’s Chillicothe (Mo.) HS football Hornets were expected, in advance, to be staring at some significant growing pains. The hope was that the 0-3 start of the 2018 season, when head coach Tim Rulo’s first CHS squad faced a similar dearth of experience, could be averted by salvaging at least one win out of the two non-conference contests against seemingly-beatable foes at the start of the year.

Halfway through each of those contests, the Hornets were positioned favorably to emerge victorious, out-playing Marshall significantly the first two quarters of the season and home opener and, this past Friday (Sept. 4, 2020), capitalizing on early big play by their defense to have the upper hand at Kirksville at intermission. However, in both cases, Chillicothe’s 7-points halftime lead vanished in the third quarter, never to return as a 21-7 loss to MHS’ Owls was followed Friday by a 27-21 setback at Kirksville.

“You can see the growth and development,” Rulo reflected for the C-T Saturday. “You just wish you had the win.”

Now, Chillicothe faces the daunting – although perhaps less than normal – task of needing to win at COVID-19-plagued Maryville (1-1) next Friday to avoid a repeat of the 0-3 mark of two years ago. Maryville bested Harrisonville 42-40 in its week two game.

Chillicothe’s duel with Kirksville was virtually even on both the scoreboard and the statistics sheet.

When Hornets junior fullback Damarcus Kelow, who ended the night a single yard short of joining sophomore fellow fullback Cayden Potter in reaching the century mark in rushing yardage, cracked across the host Tigers’ goal line from two yards away with 6:37 remaining in regulation time and sophomore placekicker Griff Bonderer added a conversion kick, the game was a dead heat at 21-21.

However, on the second play after the ensuing kickoff, KHS slotback Randon Baumgartner slipped through a gaggle of pursuing Hornets on a “jet sweep” around left end, barely pulling free of a jersey-grabbing tackle attempt about 15 yards downfield, to speed 67 yards for what became the deciding touchdown.

CHS edged the ball just across midfield on its subsequent series before having a fourth-and-9 deep pass intercepted in a “jump-ball” battle. Then, after new Kirksville head coach Kevin Krietemeyer incredulously opted to tried – and failed – to convert a fourth-and-1 situation at the Tigers’ 37 with less than 50 seconds to go, the Hornets’ defensive gave the offense one more chance to rescue the win in the last 40 seconds, but, after a time-chewing 8-yards completion down the middle on the first play, two incompletions were followed by a goal-line interception on a play on which the intended Chillicothe target stumbled on his route just as the pass was being released and was in no position to try to make the catch.

Just as the points were nearly even, total yardage numbers were, as well. Although it had only two-thirds of the offensive snaps Chillicothe had, Kirksville finished with a 374-327 advantage in total offense, mostly because it had several explosive plays – some planned and some improvised.

While the Hornets were steadily grinding the ball down the field, primarily in small bites, with mostly inside runs by their alternating fullbacks and option-play keepers by junior quarterback Gage Leamer, Kirksville got the bulk of its 275 rushing yards – and 14 of its points – on a mere three of its 31 attempts.

Baumgartner’s decisive 67-yards burst followed running back Landon Yardley’s well-blocked 58-yards dash three minutes into the second half that cut CHS’ 14-7 halftime lead to a single point and quarterback Jaden Ballinger’s lucky-break 42-yards bolt down the left sideline after a faulty first-quarter snap came within a whisker of being a Chillicothe takeaway at midfield. Those three runs provided 167 of KHS’ ground-game output and, when two 21-yards carries by Ballinger – the first of which tied the game at 7-7 late in the first period – are tossed in with them, it means CHS defenders limited the Tigers to only 66 yards on their other 26 runs – an average of barely 2-1/2 yards per attempt.

Unfortunately for speed-challenged Chillicothe, while its attack routinely was the most-steadily productive, having to try to move the ball – bit by bit – at least 65 yards to reach the end zone on most of its possessions left plenty of chances for getting sidetracked. That happened often, including fumbling six times – three of which Kirksville recovered – and the two late, in-desperation interceptions.

Keeping CHS in contention for the victory was that its host was similarly generous in sharing the ball with the foe. Kirksville also tossed a pair of interceptions, including one by Hornets junior nose guard Christian Peniston on a first-period middle screen that set up the CHS offense inside the Tigers’ red zone for their initial touchdown, and fumbled four times, although it lost only one of the four.

“It’s just guys trying to give great effort,” Rulo partially excused some of his team’s fumbles as occurring when players were straining for extra yardage. “… They need to be more understanding of ,’Hey, we need to protect the ball a little bit better.’ I thought our running backs did a better job of that in the second half.”

Chillicothe seized the initial lead less than five minutes in after Peniston’s unexpected theft when he arose from being blocked to the artificial turf to find a pass heading right toward him. Niftily grabbing it, his 2-yards runback set up the offense at the KHS 17, from where Ga. Leamer capped a 5-plays series with a 2-yards touchdown sneak.

With the game knotted at 7-7 in the second stanza, the Hornets ignored starting at their own 22 and, with 11 running plays and a tough catch by slotback Tucker Wagers for a 20-yards pickup to the KHS 5, put the ball in the end zone again. Potter’s 1-yard blast put CHS back in front almost exactly 12 minutes after it had grabbed its first advantage on the John Spainhower Field scoreboard. When Bonderer again drilled the point-after kick, the Hornets had a 14-7 lead which the defense preserved until halftime with a big, late stand.

One of Chillicothe’s three lost fumbles gave Kirksville possession at the CHS 42 with about five minutes remaining in the first half. However, after the Tigers advanced to a first down at the 13, a 3-way tackle of Ballinger for a 7-yards loss by junior lineman Cam Fleener and sophomore linebackers Potter and Corbin Rodenberg on second down led to KHS being stopped on downs at the 12 in the last minute of the half.

A fumble recovery by the rapidly-improving Fleener, who posted a team-high half-dozen solo tackles and assisted on another six, halted the Tigers’ first possession of the third quarter, but Chillicothe’s offense – set up at its 41 – hurt itself with a first-play holding penalty went three and out.

Following a punt, Kirksville needed only four plays to go 67 yards and score, thanks to Yardley’s 58-yards run on which, in a rare 5-linemen, 1-linebacker alignment, the Hornets got four of the linemen walled off to one side, the opposite side from where the ballcarrier went. With the lone linebacker occupied by another blocker, Yardley cut back to his left behind that blocker and found an open lane down the middle of the field.

Still in front 14-13 as the home team’s conversion kick try went wide left, Chillicothe used the ensuing KHS pooch kickoff attempt to set up shop all the way out at its 45, yet somehow – despite snapping the ball 14 times – failed to add to that razor-thin lead. Even with two double-digits-yardage runs by Potter and one by Kelow against the very big Tigers defensive line, the Hornets bogged down after being first-and-10 at the KHS 14 and a fourth-and-5 back-corner flag route to Max Wagers fell incomplete as the received gestured for a pass interference flag.

Reprieved at the last moment by its defense, Kirksville’s attack responded with a 9-plays touchdown march capped by reserve running back Sam Thomas’ 4-yards inside run. A 2-points conversion pass, on which video showed a “pick play” infraction on the Tigers went uncalled allowed a wide-open receiver to make an uncontested catch, gave the hosts their first lead of the evening 34 seconds before the third stanza ended.

The Hornets admirably responded with their 13-plays score-knotting march, but could not replicate that following Baumgartner’s go-ahead dash.

Statistically, Potter netted 102 yards on 17 carries and Kelow 99 on 23. Quarterback Leamer, showing some advancement in becoming a running threat in the CHS “veer” attack, picked up another 55 on 15 keeps.

“They started understanding where the holes were, how they needed to hit them,” Rulo said of the fullbacks’ between-the-tackles success against the bulky Tigers as the game progressed. “They did a better job with their vision on that.”

Kelow picked up 84 of his yards after halftime, while Potter’s output was exactly evenly-split between the halves.

KHS’ Yardley led all ballcarriers with 121 yards on only 12 runs and Ballinger had 88 more – virtually all of them on three of his 13 attempts.

Kirksville was more accurate in the air, but gained only 99 yards on 11 completions. Chillicothe threw for 57 yards.

The Fleener-led CHS defense, which was without starting junior linebacker Brock Ward, due to injury, also had nine tackles – six unassisted – from Kelow, whose alert reaction and deflection redirected a second-period pass to Potter for the other Chillicothe “pick.”

The Hornets stopped Kirksville for lost yardage eight times for a total of 44 negative yards, while CHS had only 10 lost yards on the night. The 6

4”, 205-pounds Fleener and sophomore outside linebacker Brock Miller, who returned from illness for his first varsity start, each had a solo sack and a third one they shared. while Fleener was in on four of the eight “negative” Kirksville snaps. Potter was part of three such stops behind the line.

While Miller returned to action and there is hope Ward might be ready for the next contest, Rulo reported senior Kamryn Rinehart, who sat out the opener with injury before getting into a number of defensive plays at Kirksville, came away hurt. He’s questionable for the Maryville game, the coach preliminarily estimated.


    Chillicothe        7    7     0     7    

    Kirksville        7    0    14     6


7:19 (1) – Gage Leamer 2-yards run (Griff Bonderer kick) (5 plays, 17 yards)  CHS 7-0

1:21 (1) – Jaden Ballinger 21-yards run (Andrew Nothdurft kick) (2 plays, 38 yards)  CHS 7-7

7:14 (2) – Cayden Potter 1-yard run (Bonderer kick) (12 plays, 78 yards)  CHS 14-7

8:56 (3) – Landon Yardley 58-yards run (Andrew Nothdurft kick NG-WL) (4 plays, 67 yards)  CHS 14-13

0:34 (3) – Sam Thomas 4-yards run (Noah Copeland pass from Ballinger) (9 plays, 91 yards)  KHS 21-14

6:37 (4) – Damarcus Kelow 2-yards run (Bonderer kick) (13 plays, 72 yards)  Tie 21-21

5:43 (4) – Randon Baumgartner 67-yards run (Nothdurft kick NG-blocked) (2 plays, 67 yards)  KHS 27-21



(CHS) Cayden Potter 17 carries, 102 yards (1 TD), Damarcus Kelow 23-99 (1), Gage Leamer 15-55 (1), Brock Miller 3-10, Tucker Wagers 1-4. [TEAM 58-270 (3)]  (KHS) Landon Yardley 12-121 (1), Jaden Ballinger 13-88 (1), Randon Baumgartner 2-69 (1), Sam Thomas 1-4 (1), Logan Blickham 3-(-7). [TEAM 31-275 (4)]


(CHS) Leamer 5 comp. in 14 att., 57 yards (0 TD/2 int.).  (KHS) Ballinger 11-17, 99 yards (0/2)


(CHS) T. Wagers 2-28, Braxten Johnson 2-21, Max Wagers 1-6. [TEAM 5-57]   (KHS) Noah Copeland 9-75, Baumgartner 2-24. [TEAM 11-99]


Cam Fleener 12 (6), Kelow 9 (5), Miller 5 (2), M. Wagers 5 (2), Bryce Dominique 5 (2), Griff Bonderer 4 (4), Potter 4 (3), Kamryn Rinehart 3 (2), Trey Tipton 3, Johnson 3, Corbin Rodenberg 2 (1), Ga. Leamer 1 (1), Dan Hoel 1, Landon Swift 1.


(CHS) Fleener 1-1/2 (1-1/2), Miller 1-1/2 (1-1/2). [TEAM 3] . (KHS) None.


Chillicothe 8 for -44 yards (Fleener 2-5/6, Potter 2-1/3, Miller 1-1/2, Rinehart 1, Rodenberg 1/3). Kirksville 5 for -10 yards.


(CHS) Christian Peniston (1st) (2 yards), Potter (1st). [TEAM 2 (2 yds)] (KHS) Luther Evans (25 yds.), Brock Burchett. [TEAM 2 (25 yds.)]


Chillicothe 6 (3), Kirksville 4 (1)


(CHS) Fleener (1st). (KHS) Lane Gordy, Pearce Crawford, Clay Vice. [TEAM 3]


(CHS) M. Wagers 2 for 29 yards, Dominique 1-16, Tyler Murphy 1-6. [TEAM 4-51] (KHS) Burchett 3-22, John Behnen 1-11, Drew Chrisman 1-8. [TEAM 4-44]




(CHS) Bonderer 2 for 67 yards. (MHS) Andrew Nothdurft 1-28.




Chillicothe 7 for 50 yards. Kirksville 2-17


Chillicothe 16 (2 passing, 14 rushing). Kirksville 15 (5 passing, 10 rushing)