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Into the Great Unknown: Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Football Hornets Set to Visit COVID-19-hampered League Power Maryville Friday

Staff Writer
Chillicothe News
Chillicothe (Mo.) HS junior fullback Damarcus Kelow veers to his left on a carry against Marshall in the Hornets' 2020 season opener two weeks ago. Kelow came up a single yard short of 100 rushing yards in last week's 27-21 loss at Kirksville.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

For more than a decade, a team’s high school football game against the Maryville Spoofhounds has presented the opponent with a very well-known commodity – a strong, physical, fundamentally-sound, well-regimented team of mostly-veteran, proven players.

However, this, of course, isn’t any year – it’s 2020 – and that means even the most-certain of things can become shrouded in fog.

This Friday, the Chillicothe High School football Hornets (0-2) will commence 2020 Midland Empire Conference play against the league’s defending champion, Maryville, knowing the opponent has an excellent recent tradition and daunting style of play, but with limited solid information on who the players are who’ll be trying to carry out head coach Matt Webb’s game plan.

Maryville, site of Northwest Missouri State University, and its home Nodaway County have instituted significant COVID-19 mediation measures and restrictions to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus there. However, given the ubiquitous presence of the university and its students in addition to the normal community populace, success in shackling the disease has been less than 100 percent. As a result, many Maryville High School students and staffers have been under quarantine, due to possible exposure to the virus, at different times.

Among those affected students were many members of the MHS football team, who subsequently have had to sit out 14 calendar days before, if still asymptomatic, being able to resume participation. Under Missouri State High School Activities Association COVID-19 control measures, any athlete who actually tests positive for the coronavirus must sit out for at least 14 days and have a negative test result before they can enter a 5- or 7-days “reacclimation” period in which they may practice, but not compete in a game/match/meet.

Because of the extent of the problem, in relation to the MHS football program, the Spoofhounds had only about 20 players in uniform for last week’s game against Harrisonville. Maryville still won the game 42-40, even after blowing a 24-0 lead and trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter.

“It was odd to see a Maryville sideline with only eight guys, maybe 10 guys total, on the sideline,” Chillicothe head coach Tim Rulo acknowledged to reporters in a mid-week interview. “I know (Webb is) getting a lot of those guys back, so that’s even harder to figure who their starters will be, because they’re going to get four or five of those guys back this week.”

While missing numerous starters because of COVID-19, the Spoofhounds also were minus Ben Walker, their would-be third-year starting quarterback. He sustained a knee injury in the team’s season-opening loss to another state power, Jefferson City: Blair Oaks, and, according to Rulo, is through for the season.

Symptomatic of the depth of the Maryville program which has led to it winning at least a share of the MEC pigskin title every year but one over the past decade, junior Connor Drake stepped into the starting quarterback’s role in week two and, while not prolific, was poised enough to throw the game-winning touchdown pass with only a few minutes left in the Harrisonville game.

Additionally, with senior running back Connor Weiss – ticketed to be a third-year starter this season – idled by the quarantine, the Spoofhounds simply inserted sophomore Caden Stoecklein in his spot and got three long runs and, according to Rulo, over 200 yards from him.

With Weiss apparently among those cleared to return to game action, last week’s results clearly show Maryville’s ground game, which also includes senior veterans Trey Houchin (two rushing touchdowns last week) and Brady Farnan (28-yards scoring run vs. Harrisonville), remains formidable, even with the lessened passing threat.

What the CHS coach anticipates is the Spoofhounds focusing on a smaller package of plays than its more-experienced, fuller roster might be ready to utilize.

“They’ve had to handle things a little different at the beginning of this year because of the quarantine,” Rulo assesses after examining game video from the ’Hounds’ win over Harrisonville. “… They’ve gotten a little more basic (on offense).”

The Maryville offensive line graduated three members of the 5-man interior unit that started last year’s 49-12 romp over a much-saltier Chillicothe team than this year’s. If not quarantined, big senior center Tobin Cordell (240 pounds last year) and smaller junior tackle Blake Casteel (listed at just under 200 pounds a year ago) would figure to anchor the group that sprung Stoecklein free multiple times last week.

“They’re still very, very big and very, very talented,” Rulo said he gleaned from examining video of the Spoofhounds-Harrisonville contest.

When Drake did pass last week, his main targets included, in addition to his running backs, senior ends Cade Wilmes, who hauled in the 18-yards TD strike that won it late, and Caleb Kreizinger. Kreizinger also had a pass interception that helped MHS zoom to its 24-points lead in the first quarter last week.

Mostly, considering the circumstances, the CHS coach anticipates a heavy dose of runs from the traditional wing-T MHS offense.

“You know it’s coming, but they’re going to dare you to stop it,” Rulo said Wednesday.

“That’s where you’ve got to be fundamentally sound. … You have to make sure you know what you’re doing. … We need to make sure we’re doing a great job of making sure we’re assignment-sound all night long.”

On defense, which Harrisonville managed about 280 rushing yards against, but only about 80 in the air, among returning MHS starters are 6’7” end Marc Gustafson (also the starting tight end), Houchin at linebacker, and Farnan and, potentially,Weiss in the secondary.

“They’re fine. They look good. … Typical strong, physical Maryville football team,” Rulo summarized for the C-T last weekend.

As for what Chillicothe needs to get done to take a step forward, regardless of the scoreboard outcome of Friday’s clash at Maryville, its head coach starts with the most obvious – ball security.

Even with a virtually-all-senior team last year, the Hornets lost the turnover battle to the Spoofhounds 3-1. An inexperienced 2018 CHS squad had five fumbles and lost three, while MHS had no giveaways, in that year’s 47-0 Maryville win in which the ’Hounds led 33-0 by the time the game was 16 minutes old.

This year’s inexperienced Hornets team has lost the turnovers battle 2-0 to Marshall and 5-3 at Kirksville last week.

When not giving the ball away, Chillicothe has had some success moving it against those preceding, lesser-quality opponents, rushing for 270 yards last week and, with greater balance, generating 234 yards in the opener.

However, the turnovers have wasted many of those yards after lengthy drives. Of the Hornets’ four touchdowns to date, half have come after taking possession inside the opponent’s 35-yard line. Multiple lengthy marches have reached the “red zone,” only to be derailed on downs or by giveaways.

On defense, Marshall had some second-half success on the ground when the Hornets went to a “softer” defensive scheme in anticipation that the Owls would lean more heavily on veteran quarterback Ben Haug’s passing to try to erase the Hornets’ 7-0 halftime lead. Instead, the Owls built post-intermission momentum with some early big gains on the ground on their way to a 21-7 comeback victory.

Kirksville last week used a handful of long gains on running plays to both generate 275 rushing yards and three of its four touchdowns against CHS. It also passed for another 100 yards. That’s not a promising sign for how the Hornets might fare against the usually-more-potent Maryville attack.

Not helping the Chillicothe cause any will be the absence – apparently for an extended period of time of junior starting linebacker Brock Ward and senior linebacker/defensive lineman Kamryn Rinehart, who was expected during preseason to play quite a bit on defense.

Arguably CHS’ brightest spot to date on either side of the ball has been junior defensive lineman Cam Fleener.

The 6’4”, 205-pounder was part of seven tackles – four unassisted and one for a loss – against Marshall, then had one of the larger single-game totals last week when he had six solo stops and helped on another half-dozen at Kirksville. He earned credit for 1-1/2 sacks and was in on two other tackles behind the line of scrimmage, as well. He recovered one fumble and nearly had another.

Regardless of whether the Hornets avoid their second 0-3 start in his three years as head coach or not, Rulo says his players cannot let this week’s game negatively define them going forward.

“We need to focus on getting better,” the coach says of the primary task his players collectively and individually have. “… They’re a great test for us to see where we’re at, because they’re going to expose all of your weaknesses.

“… For us, again, it’s playing ‘assignment football’ – tackling well, knowing who you’re supposed to block, blocking to the whistle, taking care of the football. Those are the things we’re going to have to do well.

“It’s not rocket science.”

Just as this story was being initially posted, information was received that a possible change in Friday’s game site was being contemplated, presumably due to the rain of the past couple of days and the likelikhood of more on Friday. In an attempt to prevent extensive damage to the MHS grass field from playing on it, Maryville school officials reportedly were inquiring about whether NWMSU would allow it to move the game to the university’s artificial-turf stadium. That’s where the 2018 Chillicothe game was played for the same reason.