By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Strong starts are great in sports. However, fast finishes often are more fruitful.
For a second time in as many 2020 Midland Empire Conference outings, the Chillicothe High football Hornets generated an extremely-impressive game-opening drive to secure a 7-0 lead, this time in their Homecoming game against long-time foil Cameron.
Like Maryville a week earlier, the visiting Dragons were not dismayed by that early Chillicothe success, however. They battled back to take their first lead in the middle of the second quarter and, beginning with a touchdown less than half-minute before halftime, posted the game’s last 27 points to keep the Hornets winless by a 48-21 margin.
The last time Chillicothe began a season 0-4, as it is now, was 1984. It also lost in week five before suddenly making a U-turn to win its last four games. The next year, after an opening-week loss to Lexington, the Hornets “ran the table” and claimed their fourth state championship with a 13-1 mark.
This year’s Hornets certainly could be staring at an 0-5 start, since their next opponent – Kansas City: St. Pius X – stunned the Midland Empire Conference with a 26-14 home verdict over defending champion Maryville Friday. SPX, which will host Chillicothe next Friday, stands 4-0 overall, including a 42-22 victory over Cameron in week three.
Chillicothe’s Homecoming game, which was followed by royalty coronation ceremonies which revealed Ella Leamer as queen and Mason Baxter as king, was shaping up like a down-to-the-wire humdinger until a familiar bugaboo bit the hosts after intermission.
Having begun the game with another nearly-flawless, long scoring drive of 12 plays and 69 yards – capped by senior slotback Tucker Wagers’ 21-yards scamper around left end, Chillicothe responded to falling behind 21-13 in the middle of the second period with a tying score.
Set up at the Cameron 21 by sophomore Bryce Dominique’s 61-yards kickoff return, the Hornets faced a fourth-and-6 following a procedure penalty, but junior quarterback Gage Leamer, rolling out to his left, threw a strike to classmate Braxten Johnson on a square-out route to the left for a 17-yards score that salvaged the threat. When Damarcus Kelow barely broke the plane of the goal line on a run behind center on the conversion attempt, the Hornets and Dragons were deadlocked 3:02 before halftime.
The visitors proved the quaint old saying, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” still holds true as it reclaimed the upper hand just ahead of intermission.
A good kickoff return bolstered by a Chillicothe personal foul – apparently for a hit to the helmet on the tackle – allowed the Dragons’ offense to set up shop in Hornets territory at the 44. Eight plays later, as the clock ticked down to 27 seconds remaining in quarter No. 2, Kacy Kellerstrass hauled in Ty Campbell’s crossing-route pass at about the Chillicothe 7 and dragged a would-be tackler just across the goal line. With a successful point-after kick from Tryston Scott, Cameron led again, 28-21, and was on its way to a run of 27 unanswered points the rest of the night.
Although the Dragons (3-1, 1-1 conf.) used another big kickoff return to start the opening series of the second half nearly at midfield, the Chillicothe defense – helped immensely by two Cameron holding calls in three plays – forced a punt, giving the offense a chance to pull the team back even.
However, just as that possibility looked promising, a forced fumble gave the ball back to the visitors at the Cameron 45. This time, there’d be no reprieve for the Chillicothe defense.
In seven plays, the Dragons covered the 55 yards, Campbell powering into the north end zone of Bob Fairchild Field with 4:58 on the third-period clock.
Down 35-21 and having difficulty stopping the Cameron attack, Chillicothe head coach Tim Rulo went way against the book when the next Hornets possession quickly left them facing fourth-and-6 from their own 27.
Eschewing a punt in a show of confidence in his offensive unit, he called a pass play which resulted in Johnson getting open beyond the first-down marker, but the throw being a bit too wide and going off his hands, incomplete.
Gifted excellent field position, Cameron ignored a major markoff against it on its first try at its first-down play from the 27. Instead snapping the ball from the 40, Campbell arched a deep throw that Bryson Speer caught just as he reached the goal line down the east sideline. Although an errant snap prevented the conversion kick attempt, Cameron had gained a 3-scores lead, 41-21, and the outcome was largely determined with 2:34 left in the third stanza.
Chillicothe’s offense did try to resuscitate its hopes, producing another lengthy drive that took the ball from its own 32 to the Cameron 5. However, on the third play of the fourth quarter, a fourth-and-2 play from the 5 gained only one yard, giving the ball back to the visitors.
The last tiny glimmer of Chillicothe hope was eliminated with just over seven minutes remaining when, on a first-and-10 play from the Cameron 32, a bad pitchout on an option play put the ball on the artificial turf for an instant. As the ball bounced up and forward off a Hornet’s attempt to track it down, it went right into the hands of Cameron outside linebacker Ty Speer at the Chillicothe 30. Already moving forward toward the Chillicothe goal line, T Speer – a running back/wingback on the Dragons’ offensive unit – had no trouble sprinting 70 yards untouched to score the contest’s final touchdown.
The contest continued a distressing and disturbing trend for Chillicothe.
Sparked by reaching paydirt on three opening drives and fumbling the ball away inside the opposition 10 on the fourth, Chillicothe twice in its first four outings has led at halftime, while trailing by only seven points Friday, and being within 20-7 at Maryville in week three, when the Hornets had two second-period scoring chances come up just short.
However, with Cameron’s 27-0 dominance of the scoreboard, the Hornets now have been outscored 110-7 in the second halves of those contests.
Statistically in the Cameron game, the home team unofficially out-rushed the Dragons 278-241 and was out-gained overall only 375-339. However, again, turnovers doomed them.
Chillicothe fumbled three times – losing two – and had two passes intercepted, all while the visitors not only didn’t have an interception, but didn’t fumble once, much less lose one. The Hornets now are a minus-11 in the takeaway/giveaway ratio, having lost 10 of 18 fumbles and thrown four “picks.”
Individually, Chillicothe’s ground success did lead to junior running back Damarcus Kelow slipping just over 100 yards for the first time in his career. He unofficially picked up 104 yards on 19 carries. Three other Hornets – Wagers (60), Leamer (58), and Cayden Potter (56) – exceeded 55 rushing yards.
Leamer hit on five of his nine throws, with second-period strikes of 32 and 17 yards to Johnson being good for the Hornets’ first two air scores of the season. Johnson outleaped a Cameron cornerback at the Dragons’ 8 and strode on in for the 32-yards score to give the hosts’ their last lead – 13-7 – at the 8:13 mark of the second quarter.
Cameron quarterback Campbell had three TD throws – a 40-yarder to Bryson Speer, a 32-yarder to Ian Riley, and the 19-yarder to Kellerstrass. The senior matched Leamer’s 5-of-9 success, but got 134 yards out of his. He also ran for a team-high 80 yards and three short touchdowns. Two other Dragons ran for at least 75 yards.