It's times like Friday night when Nixa fans are glad to have quarterback Andrew Rivera and running back Nicos Oropeza on their side.
Receiving a legitimate scare from the visiting Neosho Wildcats, the senior tandem stepped up in timely fashion to help their squad overcome a four-point deficit in the final minute and grab a thrilling 31-28 victory on homecoming.
“It was super stressful, but I'm overwhelmed with joy right now,” Oropeza said following the tight victory. “It was a crazy win and I can't stop smiling. I'm proud of everyone on my team. It was a crazy night.”
The Eagles (5-0), who had trouble containing Neosho's offensive attack for much of the night, didn't grab their first lead of the game until halfway through the fourth quarter on a terrific catch by senior wideout Tru Atkins to give Nixa a momentary 24-21 advantage.
After the Wildcats went 56 yards for a touchdown of their own in just under three minutes on the ensuing drive, Rivera and Oropeza refused to let the opportunity for a win slip away – leading the charge for one more successful drive and the final score of the night in the form of a 1-yard TD dive by Rivera with 34.9 seconds to play.
“They're both really good leaders and are doing a lot for us,” Nixa head coach Rich Rehagen said of Oropeza and Rivera. “In plays where they need to step up, they're doing it.”
At halftime, the thought of an ultimately disappointing evening was circling through the minds of the Nixa faithful – especially after they witnessed a perfectly executed hook-and-ladder by Neosho (3-2) which resulted in an impressive 34-yard touchdown from the arm of QB Coleman Scott just before the end of the second quarter.
Scott completed the pass to senior Bryce Murphy, who immediately lateraled the ball at Nixa's 20-yard line to running back Payton Klier to finish the job.
“We definitely didn't take any momentum into the locker room, there's no question of that,” said Rehagen. “But we have some leaders, so we just kept battling.”
Thanks to six fourth-down conversions on seven total attempts, including two conversions in the final six minutes of the contest, the Eagles were able to seize back momentum and prove they're worthy of their No. 5 state ranking in Class 5.
“When it comes down to the wire like that and you know you have to make plays to win, there's something that comes into you and you just know you've got to do it,” Rivera said. “To know that we got it done, it's good.”
Nixa's biggest fourth-down play came with 1:29 remaining in regulation and the Eagles trailing, 28-24, when Rivera connected with Oropeza for a 27-yard gain at the Neosho 13 to keep the drive – and Nixa's unblemished record – alive.
Battling the sideline, Oropeza caught the ball with a pair of defensive backs in his face while athletically keeping his feet in bounds.
“I didn't know if [Rivera] was going to throw it to me,” Oropeza said of his key reception. “I saw it in the air and I just waited for it. [The defenders] both happened to miss it and I got it right in the basket. It was awesome.”
Two plays later, Nixa claimed the lead for good and ended Neosho's hopes for the upset on the road.
“It was a good game and I'm sure it was entertaining for the fans,” said Neosho head coach Dustin Baldwin. “At the end of the day, [Nixa] made more plays than we did. That's about it.”
On the night, Rivera was 8-for-13 passing, good for 144 yards and a touchdown. The senior also amassed 93 yards and two TDs on the ground. Oropeza had 26 carries for 87 yards and a TD, while collecting three catches for 78 yards.
Nixa will now get ready to host COC powerhouse Webb City next week, which has won three straight after a sluggish 0-2 start. Neosho returns home to host Republic before hitting the road for its following two games.
Nixa 31, Neosho 28
Neosho 14-7-0-7 – 28
Nixa 7-7-3-14 – 31
Neosho – Klier 6 run (kick good)
Nixa – Oropeza 4 run (kick good)
Neosho – Scott 16 run (kick good)
Nixa – Rivera 3 run (kick good)
Neosho – Klier 34 catch from Scott (kick good)
Nixa – Sample 31 FG kick
Nixa – Atkins 9 catch from Rivera (kick good)
Neosho – Scott 8 run (kick good)
Nixa – Rivera 1 run (kick good)