Circle Thunderbirds get revenge in season opening win over Chanute

Lionel Tipton

TOWANDA – The humid air hung heavy Friday night at Circle – and not just because thunderstorms were closing in.

A year ago, a late Chanute rally had denied the visiting Thunderbirds a season-opening victory, 16-14.

But on this night, Circle not only got its revenge, defeating Chanute and doing so mere minutes before the storms hit. 

The Thunderbirds’ 20-12 victory also exorcised nearly a decade’s worth of demons to open the schedule. For this night, at least, the words “unbeaten Circle” became a reality.

“It’s good for our kids,” Circle coach Logan Clothier said afterward. “Our kids love playing for our coaches, and our coaches love our kids. At the end of the day, whether you win or lose, when you’re around great people, it makes it a lot of fun.”

The Thunderbirds won their first season-opener since a 31-14 victory at Augusta in 2012. Going back further, Circle’s first home season-opening triumph came in 2010, when they edged Maize South, 14-7.

“We’ve been talking about it; we all knew it was going to happen,” senior quarterback Luke McGinnis said. “We all had the confidence in each other, and we showed it.”

Even though it was the season-opener, the suspense and dramatics were already in midseason form. 

It was a game of strange happenings, right down to Circle’s winning touchdown, which came on a fourth-down pass from senior Luke McGinnis to junior Ty Smith. McGinnis took the snap, rolled out, then lofted a pass back against the grain that eluded multiple sets of hands before finding its way into the hands of Smith, who sprinted to the end zone and completed the 34-yard play with 7:47 to play as a stunned crowd erupted in joy. 

Clothier said a lot of the play was McGinnis.

“It was fourth down, and he made a great play by giving us a chance,” Clothier said. “When you’ve got two great players like Luke McGinnis and Ty Smith, they’re going to make plays, and it makes you look real good as a coach and a coaching staff.” 

McGinnis said he knew Smith would find a way to haul in the pass.

“I’ve got faith in him,” McGinnis said. “I’ll throw it up any time against anybody (and) I know he’ll come down with it, what he did multiple times (Friday night).”

But Circle still was wary, lest it suffer the same fate as a year ago.

Sophomore Cannon McCormack – who scored the first T-Bird touchdown on a 10-yard run – came through again, this time on defense, sacking quarterback Eric Erbe at the Chanute 30 and putting the Comets in a third-and-32 hole. Two incompletions later, Circle took over on downs and ran out the clock – then ran for the gym. A few minutes later, the storm hit.

Afterward, Smith said the strange-looking TD pass wasn’t as odd as it seemed.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we’ve done that multiple times, I mean countless times,” he said. “And that’s what you’re going to get when he’s in (during) the summer every day, working hard, and I’m right there with him.

“Together, we missed very (few) days. He’s just such a great guy, and he just does a good job of making sure everybody’s confident and he really gets everyone under control.”

Smith said he still wasn’t certain of the details of the winning play.

“I kind of blacked out for a little bit,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you what exactly happened. If you watch the play, I didn’t even hesitate to start running. I just caught it and starting running real quick.”

The bizarre occurrences began early, as on Circle’s second drive of the game, an inadvertent whistle at the line of scrimmage wiped out a long touchdown run, and the drive ended in a Circle punt.

Two plays later, Circle senior Jake Hagemann intercepted Erbe at the Chanute 42 just before the end of the first quarter. Six plays later, McCormack bulled his way the final 10 yards to the end zone for a 7-0 lead after Will Trier’s extra point.

Circle then put together a 13-play, 77-yard drive in the waning moments of the first half, capped by a McGinnis touchdown pass to Smith from 14 yards out for a 13-0 halftime lead.

Clothier said he told the team at halftime they had to carry over the first-half intensity.

“Just tell them the keep the foot on the gas,” he said. “Just continue pushing forward.”

The oddities continued in the second half, when a snap sailed over the head of 6-foot-2 punter Brendan Galloway, who picked up the ball and was tackled at the Circle 5. Chanute needed just two plays to get on the board, cutting the T-Birds’ lead to 13-6.

But the T-Birds didn’t wilt in the muggy conditions.

“It’s like coach Clothier said, with this group, we’re really good at bouncing back from adversity,” Smith said. “It’s just so easy to be in a locker room. I just have confidence that if I come in there at 6:30 in the morning and I’m smiling, and I’m going to get a smile back from Jake Hagemann, and everybody’s going to go in there and put in work. It’s really easy environment.”

In spite of that, Clothier said his players remained resolute.

“We told the kids before the game (that) adversity’s going to strike, and it did, but you didn’t see our kids’ heads drop,” he said. “That’s something we talked about. Maybe five years ago, four years ago, our kids would have said ‘We’re going to let them back in. We’re going to lose.’ Our kids found a way to make plays.”

McGinnis was intercepted at the Chanute 48 just before the third quarter ended, and the Comets pulled closer when Erbe connected with Dagen Dean for a 19-yard score. Chanute again failed on the conversion, and Circle clung to a 13-12 lead, setting up the wild finish. 

The Thunderbirds won’t have long to celebrate the victory, going on the road the next two weeks at McPherson and arch-rival Augusta.

Circle 20, Chanute 12

Chanute;0;0;12;0—12

Circle;0;13;0;7—20

Cir – McCormack 10 run (Trier kick)

Cir – Smith 14 pass from McGinnis (conversion failed)

Cha – Leedy 3 run (conversion failed)

Cha – Dean 19 pass from Erbe (conversion failed)

Cir – Smith 34 pass from McGinnis (Trier kick)