FULTON --- After Friday night's game, Fulton coach Pat Kelley was surrounded by something this program hasn't experienced in a while.
Winning sure beats losing.
For the first time in five years, the Hornets have a three-game winning streak after they steamrolled the North Callaway Thunderbirds 54-14 at Robert E. Fisher Jr. Stadium.
"These kids have been through a lot," said Kelley, in his 18th season at the Fulton helm. "These seniors, when they were sophomores, we knew it was going to be ugly."
"We thought we'd be better last year than we were, but we've gotten off to a great start this year."
There's no secret to the Hornets' success --- they're good. And there's no secret to why they're good.
"It's a testament to what they did over the summer," Kelley said. "It's all the hard work and the mentality they've had to have a good season."
The first half proved this --- time of possession and ball control can be as worthless as an all-expenses paid trip to Syria.
North Callaway had the ball for nearly 18 minutes and ran 40 plays.
Fulton had it for just over six minutes and ran just 17 plays.
And the Hornets (3-0) led 21-7.
North Cal (1-2) took the opening kickoff and put together a 16-play, 65-yard, seven-minute scoring drive that featured two recovered fumbles and three fourth-down conversions.
The final conversion resulted in a one-yard touchdown plunge by Justin Menard to make it 7-0.
"They drove the ball down our throats," Kelley said.
During the drive, and just 2 1/2 minutes into the game, the Thunderbirds lost all-state lineman Michael Overstreet, a 6-8, 270-pound senior.
Overstreet suffered a strained MCL and didn't return, and will likely miss at least the next two games.
No excuses, said veteran North Cal coach Mike Emmons.
"I don't think it changed the complexion of the game," he said.
It was the Fulton defense that turned the tide in this one. After an interception by Tyler Mattes --- and converting yet another fourth-down --- the Thunderbirds were stopped on 4th-and-goal from inside the one.
"That was huge," Kelley said. "That was probably the turning point in the game."
That was turning point No. 1. No. 2 came three plays after the goal-line stand and on the first play of the second quarter, when Joe Schlemeier arched a strike to Dalton Horstmeier for an 80-yard touchdown to tie it.
"We knew they were playing press coverage," Kelley said. "It was just a great throw and a heck of a finger-tip catch, and the line did an outstanding job.
"Right there, you could tell the momentum had shifted."
Said Emmons: "Things kind of snowballed after that."
The Hornets used two more big plays to score touchdowns in the second quarter, both 31 yard-runs around left end by Travis Dean, who rushed for 107 yards on 13 carries.
In the second quarter alone, the Hornets had four plays that covered 164 yards.
"We've got some playmakers," Kelley said.
The onslaught took shape in the second half, as the Hornets eventually rattled off 47 unanswered points.
"That's what you'd call a knockout blow," Kelley said, "and that's what we've been lacking."
In the third quarter --- when the Hornets outgained the Thunderbirds by a staggering 214-0 --- Schlemeier scored on a 2-yard plunge and a 48-yard swing pass-turned touchdown from Schlemeier (the 6-5 senior was 7-of-15 for 223 yards) to Chris Tilson, and a 5-yard run by Dean.
"They have some very talented kids and we had trouble tackling them in space," Emmons said. "They're a very well-balanced team and they do it all very well."
In the fourth, back-up QB Sam Christensen --- who rushed for 104 yards on just five carries --- had scoring runs of 24 and 60 yards.
The Fulton defense, meanwhile, allowed just one first down from late in the first quarter until midway through the fourth, before the Thunderbirds scored on a 29-yard run by Kyle Grajeda with 5:23 left against the Hornets' lower units.
"Our defense picked it up a notch," Kelley said.
The Hornets --- who finished with a 489-261 edge in total yards --- will get their biggest test of the season, to date, next Friday when they play at Moberly (3-0).
But they'll carry a three-game winning streak into that bout. And they'll do it with confidence, something else they haven't had in a while.
They went 5-24 in the previous three seasons. But Friday night, the Hornets were celebrating with helmets raised. And with Kelley smiling.
Winning sure beats losing.
"This," Kelley said, "is a lot of fun."