FULTON — In their eyes, the Fulton Hornets were a couple of slips away from a different result in their season-opening loss to School of the Osage.
Now, with that game in the rearview mirror, Fulton coach Trey Barrow has seen his seasoned players take ownership of righting the ship.
"They're really stepping up and doing a good job," Barrow said. "(Senior running back) Zaylin (McNeil) is always out there talking and picking guys up. (Senior lineman) Emareion (Clark) and all my leaders and captains are the ones leading that fight."
The Hornets' 15 upperclassmen — and eight seniors — know the resolve needed to respond. That group will be vital in helping Fulton respond in tonight's road opener against the state-ranked Southern Boone Eagles. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. in Ashland.
What the Hornets' 14-6 home loss to Osage last week lacked in offensive firepower, it made up for in opportunistic playmaking. Both touchdowns surrendered by Fulton came via short fields produced by miscues on punt snaps. The Hornets' lone score materialized thanks to a breakdown by the Indians on a kickoff.
After Friday night's game, Barrow said his team had a lot of moving parts on special teams, highlighted by several freshmen littered across all coverage and kick teams. Add on the fact Fulton was without its starting kicker and punter, and the kicking game became more of an adventure than initially envisioned.Sophomore Dillon Jones — rushed into kickoff and placekicking duties after a season-ending knee injury to senior starter Zack Fortman — will get his first full week taking first-team kickoff reps. As for punting, freshman Courtland Simmons handled those in the stead of fellow freshman Josh Reams, who Barrow listed as day-to-day last week with his own injury.
Barrow is hopeful another week of starter practice reps will erase some of those gaffes.
"We played well enough to win with the exception of a few mistakes — if we fix those mistakes, we can play with anybody," Barrow said. "Make a tackle the first time, drive a pile backward, little things that we didn't get done that ultimately cost us the game."
An area where Barrow hopes the Hornets can continue to build momentum is on defense, specifically against the run. Fulton hindered Osage's normally potent ground attack, giving up just 173 yards rushing. Big bodies like Clark helped clog those lanes and Barrow thinks they'll be crucial to future run futility for the Hornets' opponents.
The back seven played a vital role in the run defense's performance, providing timely and complementary support to Fulton's front four. That collective could, again, prove crucial to defending a Southern Boone offense similar to what Fulton runs itself.
"The guys in the secondary are just different mentally this year," Barrow said. "They're tough football players that aren't scared to tackle, and they'll come up and hit you."
Southern Boone — sitting at No. 6 in Class 3 in this week's Missouri Media Rankings — is fresh off a 20-0 win at Mexico in last week's opener. The Eagles fielded a balanced offensive output against the Bulldogs, totaling 250 yards of offense (142 passing and 108 rushing).
Senior quarterback Tyson Smith is at the controls for the Southern Boone attack and proved useful through the air against Mexico. Smith threw for 142 yards and a touchdown to junior Blake Dapkus, who tallied 72 yards on six catches.
But Barrow made a note of the Southern Boone running back contingent, headlined last week by Tristan John. The senior running back posted a pair of touchdowns and carried the ball 17 times for a game-high 92 yards.
The Eagles' all-around efficiency is indicative of a team that knows where it needs to be and how to get there. Matching that will be essential for the Fulton defense.
As assignment-oriented as Southern Boone is on offense, the Eagles' defense similarly hinges on execution. What Barrow saw from a Southern Boone team that allowed just 134 total yards against Mexico was a unit as disciplined in getting to the ball and finishing plays as his own.
"They have two tough running backs and a smart quarterback, so we have to be assignment responsible, and we have to stick with that," Barrow said. "We have to trust our teammates, tackle and make a play."
That push toward resolving to better execute from upperclassmen leaders on down to first-year players could be the difference in posting that first win of the season tonight.
"Right now, we just have a couple too many (mistakes)," Barrow said. "We're not quite there yet when it comes down to winning the game, but we just have to correct a few mistakes and improve as a team."