FULTON — Fortunes change in five weeks.
For the Fulton Hornets and Moberly Spartans, this holds especially true. When the North Central Missouri Conference foes met Sept. 20 in Fulton, it was the Hornets that held on for the 38-34 win.
Tonight, it'll be the Spartans as the host and No. 3 seed against No. 6 Fulton in Class 3 District 4 first-round play, with kickoff at 7 p.m. Following last Friday's 50-30 win against the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Hornets coach Trey Barrow noted each team enters tonight's contest differently than they did in their earlier encounter.
Barrow elaborated on that point earlier this week.
"I don't know if physically either team is different, but I think we're both mentally tougher," said Barrow, a Moberly alum. "That was Week 4, which was still pretty early in the season.
"Moberly has done nothing but get better and better each week, and we have too."
Fulton (3-6) entered the September matchup one week removed from losing starting quarterback Woodrow Foster to a season-ending leg injury in an NCMC loss at Kirksville. The Hornets proceeded to slot wide receiver Courtland Simmons in Foster's place, and the first-time starter accounted for 303 total yards and four touchdowns to lift Fulton past the Spartans.
"It's always nice getting that first conference win, and it was nice knowing that even losing a guy you know you can't replace like Woody, that we could still come out and execute and make some big plays, and pull off a win in a guy's first start," Barrow said. "It gave Courtland confidence in his ability, it gave the team confidence in him and it gave us confidence in ourselves to go out and keep playing hard for the rest of the year."The victory kicked off a two-win improvement for the Hornets in Barrow's second season, but the campaign itself has been a mixed bag since the first Moberly game. Fulton went 2-3 in the back half of the regular season and enters district play a little worse for the wear.
The Hornets had the element of surprise working in their favor before in regard to Simmons. The freshman — now in his seventh start — enters tonight's game on a hobbled ankle that will limit that playmaking ability he flashed in September.
"I think (Moberly) was caught off-guard by the athleticism of Courtland at quarterback, and I think they'll be ready for him this week," Barrow said. "We'll look for ways to help him succeed this week — we still need to find ways to get our skill guys in the open field, and we'll see if we can do that."
Fulton hopes to have its original starting five offensive linemen blocking for Simmons tonight. Sophomores Curtis Humphreys, Cameron Lee and Cameron Schaefer all hope to slide back into their starting spots this week and anchor a unit that will try to allow Simmons to distribute the ball to his perimeter threats.
Senior running back Zaylin McNeil is fresh off 279 yards rushing and four touchdowns last week at MMA, yet Barrow notes that manufacturing touches for junior wide receivers AJ Henderson and Seth Sayler will need to be a priority.
Henderson scored twice last week on a 12-yard catch and a 76-yard kickoff return, respectively. Barrow figures he'll need at least 10 touches on the Spartans' turf field to be a factor.
"Most of the season, everyone has keyed on AJ because he's such a good athlete, yet Seth Sayler is on the other side, and he's 6-(foot-)4 with good hands," Barrow said. "We have a lot of guys we can spread the ball around to if Courtland can't do much with his feet."
The Hornet offense's goal is to match a Moberly team with similar firepower at the skill positions. The Spartans — winners of four of their last five — are guided by senior quarterback Dominic Stoneking and junior running back Jarrett Kinder, who combined for 204 rushing yards in the previous outing against Fulton.
Barrow used the word "physicality" a number of times in reference to the Spartans and Kinder's running style, specifically.
"If you hit him high, you'll either go for a ride or he'll run you right over," Barrow said. "Once one guy has him wrapped up, we all have to fly to him because if he falls forward every single play, that might be 40 yards at the end of the game that he's accumulated by falling forward."
Barrow noted the maturation of the Hornets' run defense durng the season and thinks that change could be the key to limiting Moberly and prolonging their own season.
"As the year has gone on, they've learned to close those gaps and how to wrap up better," Barrow said. "If we're not true to our keys, that misdirection will fool us enough to get them in the open field, at least at the second level.
"We have to trust the keys and not pay attention to the misdirection in the backfield."