FULTON — More than the weather and the days on the calendar have changed the last four weeks. There's also been a shift in the fortunes of the Fulton Hornets.
Fresh off their first victory of the season last week, the Hornets are entering "one-game season" territory with a fresh swagger. And they'll face a foe — the rival Mexico Bulldogs — they're all too familiar with and one that is still fresh in Fulton's mind.
The Hornets — the No. 6 seed in Class 4 District 4 — travel to Mexico to face the No. 3 Bulldogs in a first-round contest tonight. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
The two North Central Missouri Conference and Highway 54 foes tangled at Mexico earlier this month, with the Bulldogs prevailing 49-28 on Oct. 2.
For Fulton (1-8), the loss was marred by errant offense and bad breaks in field position. The Hornets turned the ball over twice in the shadow of their own goal line, which Mexico quickly turned into points to take, then subsequently pad their lead.
"That was the first game that, defensively, we'd started to play better than we had most of the season," Fulton coach Trey Barrow said. "Aside from the two turnovers in our end zone, basically, I thought we played better defensively against Mexico than we had up to that point in the season. And we've continued to get better."
That upward trend on defense (and offense, for that matter) was on full display last week in Fulton's 48-14 home win against the Sweet Springs Greyhounds. When they didn't have the ball, the Hornets won the turnover battle with the Greyhounds 4-2, turning a pair of those miscues into touchdowns.
The second, an interception hauled in by junior defensive back Brynn Bynum in the Hornets' red zone, halted the Sweet Springs momentum and led to a short four-play Fulton scoring drive. After that touchdown, the Hornets fell on the onside kick, then turned that into a quick scoring strike from sophomore quarterback Courtland Simmons to Bynum.
On top of that, sophomore running back Josh Reams had a career night for Fulton, turning his six carries into three rushing touchdowns. On the heels of the Sweet Springs victory and with the two games preceding it, Barrow sees a noticeable difference in his team's performance and where it stands in contrast to the last encounter with the Bulldogs (4-4).
"Offensively, we are executing our assignments a lot better than we did earlier in the season — the line has better communication and we are always working on pad level," Barrow said. "And defensively, we are reading the plays and playing more physically."
Growth in each of those areas will be crucial to helping Fulton play another day and down rival Mexico for the first time since the 2012 season. On offense, Simmons and the Fulton passing attack found matchups and holes in the zone against the Bulldogs the last time through, but couldn't connect on some of the intermediate and long pass plays.
And with Reams and his sophomore running cohorts Tyreion Logan and Quinton McCray both carrying the ball with more consistency the last few games, the balance is there for the Hornet playmakers.
"We feel more comfortable in our assignments and responsibilities offensively," Barrow said. "We have put in multiple formations this season, and we are getting more comfortable running them."
Lapses in execution on offense and near their own goal line will have to be fewer and further between, especially if the Hornets hope to quell Mexico's three-headed rushing attack of quarterback Ty Prince and running backs Dante Billups and Michael White, who each visited the end zone in the last encounter.
The trio accounted for six of Mexico's seven touchdowns last time out and combined for 364 of the Bulldogs 432 yards rushing. Fulton's defense is a game removed from a season-best performance in which it held an opponent under 30 points for the first time in 2020.
Building off that, in Barrow's opinion, could be the true barometer to see if that change during the last four games can really stick. There's no mystery to Mexico, meaning it'll be up to the Hornets to crack that code.
"Our defense has to play well and take away their running game — we know what they are going to do, we just have to step up and make plays," Barrow said. "The offense they run is tough to stop consistently. We have to trust our teammates to do their jobs."