Chillicothe (Mo.) Football Hornets Have No Luck Against Irish
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
ST. JOSEPH — Squaring off against an opponent with an obvious advantage in speed and quickness at St. Joseph: Lafayette Friday night (Oct. 2), the 2020 Chillicothe (Mo.) HS football Hornets clearly had their sights on dominating time of possession with a power, inside running game and regularly finishing long drives with points – inherently meaning avoidance of turnovers, while defensively limiting “chunk” plays, as their most-feasible path to their first victory.
When the Hornets were unable to consistently achieve any of those, the resulting 33-7 Midland Empire Conference loss left them at a potentially-dispiriting double low point.
In addition to exiting LHS’ Scott Marriot Field and Alumni Stadium possessing an 0-6 season record – the first time in well over a century of gridiron play CHS has failed to win or tie one of its first six outings, the defeat against a Fighting Irish squad which effectively missed a week of practice recently, due to COVID-19 quarantining, looked to unravel all of the positive momentum generated by their spirited and effective performance – especially in the second half – of the preceding 42-27 loss at undefeated Kansas City: St. Pius X.
After a promising start – forcing Lafayette (3-2, 2-1 conf.) to a 3-and-out on the game’s first series of plays and advantageously taking possession at their own 45, the Hornets were unable to convert on a fourth-and-2 try at the Irish 33 on their initial possession.
The hosts’ offense responded to its defense’s unexpected short-yardage stop with a drive which dominoed a sequence which effectively put the game out of Chillicothe’s reach.
In nine plays – three of them gaining double-digits yardage, Lafayette put the ball in the end zone, its 68-yards march capped by Miles Henderson’s 1-yard run with 2:32 remaining in the first quarter.
With the Irish – like the Hornets – utilizing nothing but “pooch” or onside kickoffs all night, but the opponent cleanly handling all of them, Chillicothe’s offense again took the field outside its own 40 following the first LHS score.
However, after earning one first down across midfield – just as it had done on the initial possession, Lafayette’s speed/quickness which was expected to negate any Chillicothe perimeter run game showed why that expectation was well-founded. On an option play to the left side, a defender quickly hit running back Tucker Wagers as he received a pitchout, dislodging the ball and falling on it at the CHS 48 for a turnover.
The Fighting Irish offense made its defense’s big play pay off. Even after having a would-be 6-yards touchdown pass negated by a holding penalty, Lafayette – on fourth-and-goal from the 22 – completed a touchdown pass to wide receiver Derrick May on a play on which junior quarterback Jaron Saunders used his mobility to easily buy extra time for his receivers to get free with a scrambling rollout.
Now trailing 13-0 about 90 seconds into the second period, Chillicothe needed a statement drive from its offense to partially squelch Lafayette’s building momentum and narrow the gap back to one score. However, after once more netting one first down, an attempted option play once more was quickly disrupted by a rapidly-reacting and attacking LHS player. This time, quarterback Gage Leamer was hit even before he could get the pitchout away and an Irish player won the dash to the loose ball at the CHS 32.
Four plays later, again despite a Lafayette holding call which erased a long gainer, junior running back/receiver Kingston Oliver swept around right end for good yardage, then cut back left against the flow of the pursuit and – never being touched by a Hornet – zipped into the end zone on a 25-yards touchdown run with 5:40 left in the opening half.
Behind 20-0 and having been unable to sustain a long drive – much less score on one – or avoid giveaways, Chillicothe already was in dire straits – almost a do-or-die situation, needing desperately to get the ball into the end zone before halftime, in hopes that another dominating second half – as at St. Pius X the week before – could be achieved.
Starting from their own 35, the Hornets snapped the ball 11 times in a row (plus a LHS offside penalty), yet never gained more than six yards on any play. As a result, they reached only the LHS 33, from where – in desperation – a long fourth-and-13 pass intended for returned-from-injury sophomore end Max Wagers was underthrown and intercepted.
The pickoff and return – even with another Irish blocking penalty during the runback – gave the home team the ball at its 30 with 1:46 still to go in the half. It needed less than a minute of that to effectively seal CHS’ coffin shut.
Passes of 12 and 23 yards on the first two plays quickly moved the ball to the CHS 35. Three incompletions – one of them a drop by a wide-open target – gave the Hornets a chance to get away unscathed, at least this time, from their third turnover of the opening half. However, just as St. Pius X used a late-first-half interception at or inside its own 5 to add to its least the week before, the Fighting Irish found a way to do the same.
On fourth-and-10, a right-side pass completion went for 27 yards to the CHS 8 and Carlos Cortez slipped around left end and just inside the pylon on the next play, giving his team a 26-0 margin at intermission.
Knowing it had proven the prior week that it could score 27 points in a second half against a quality team, Chillicothe finally found its way on offense to begin the last half.
Starting again from its 35, it executed a 20-plays scoring drive – its second of that number of plays this season. Only one of the plays netted more than six yards, but that was a critical fourth-and-8 completion to Braxten Johnson from Leamer that kept the drive going at the Irish 20.
Eight more running plays followed, the last of which being a fourth-and-goal sneak that barely got Leamer across the LHS goal line from the 1. When Griff Bonderer booted the extra point, CHS was on the scoreboard, down 26-7, although it had used up 9:04 of precious game time to do so.
If an onside kickoff could be recovered or the defense get a quick stop or turnover, Chillicothe might have a chance. However, when the kickoff was not only snugly grabbed by a LHS player at midfield, but run ahead to the Hornets’ 30, the vibe wasn’t good. Neither was it when Oliver again went around right end and then cut back across the field to gain 25 yards on the first Lafayette offensive play of the second half.
However, Chillicothe took a crack at making a potentially-game-changing defensive play on the first-and-goal play that followed. With Saunders setting up to throw, senior Landon Swift – playing his most-extensively on defense this season because of the quarantine-caused absence of several CHS linemen – quickly beat his would-be blocker and crashed into the LHS quarterback, separating him from the ball. However, as it landed and rolled only slightly forward, an Irish back handily got to the ball first, covering it for actually little or no loss of yardage.
Instead of a turnover, the Irish added to its lead two plays later on a 5-yards, back-shoulder fade route hookup between Saunders and May. With the extra-point kick, Lafayette had balanced the Leamer score within about two minutes.
That proved to be the game’s last scoring. Chillicothe did get the ball to the LHS 16 midway through the last period after a bad punt gave them possession at the Irish 44, but incompletions on third- and fourth-and-5 pass attempts proved to be the last CHS snaps of the night. What would have been a final possession was thwarted by a fourth Chillicothe turnover of the game on a muffed punt reception.
Statistically, Lafayette supplemented its plus-4 margin in turnovers with a large advantage in yardage, a spread which would have been far greater had it not been for Fighting Irish penalties that eliminated more than 100 yards of would-be gains in the fourth quarter.
Totally unable – as projected – to get wide on the Lafayette defense, Chillicothe effectively was reduced to pounding junior fullback Damarcus Kelow into the middle of the line time and time and time again, even on a night when usual alternate Cayden Potter was unable, due to an injury suffered the week before.
Unofficially, Kelow tied a CHS record for individual rushing attempts in a game, lugging the ball 40 times, to match the total teammate Swift’s father Les did in a 1985 state-playoffs win over St. Charles: West. While Les Swift got 193 muddy, soggy yards for his heavy day’s work, Kelow netted only 132, not much over three yards per try. Still, it was his third-consecutive game reaching triple digits in rushing yardage.
Just as Friday’s 4-0 deficit in takeaways/giveaways significantly explains the Hornets’ demise in that game, its now 21-7 shortfall in turnovers for the season helps define its continued search for a first win.
In no small part complicating CHS’ pursuit of elusive victory this fall has been the absence of key personnel, due to injury, illness, or quarantine. At least seven players expected to be heavily-utilized all season were not in uniform at St. Joseph Friday, including junior Cam Fleener, who had blossomed into the team’s top defender and tackler the first month of the season. He sat out a second-straight game. On the plus side, the game unexpectedly did see the return of promising sophomore end Max Wagers after a 3-games injury absence.
While many teams have had issues with player availability, the impact on Chillicothe has been especially harmful because of the near-total lack of varsity playing experience with which the Hornets entered the season. Only one full-time 2019 starter was back, along with three others who started anywhere from one to five games last year.
CHS’ football team again will try to right the ship next Friday, hosting Savannah, a team which previously defeated Lafayette by two points.