By Jim Connell (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
OZARK – With the regular season winding down and star Jacob Romero sidelined by injury, the Nixa High School boys soccer team needs other players to step up and show the way.
On Tuesday night, that was junior Hunter Daniels.
Daniels scored three goals for the Eagles in a clash with rival Ozark, the final coming with 25 seconds left in a 4-2 victory.
The victory was the 10th in a row for the Eagles (10-1), following a season-opening loss to Rock Bridge on Aug. 19. It gives Nixa a leg up in the Central Ozark Conference, and most importantly, in Class 4 District 10 play, which will be hosted by the Eagles and includes Branson, Joplin and Ozark.
Without Romero, it’s a sign of growth for Daniels and the Eagles.
“We need him to step up,” Nixa coach Evan Palmer said. “We need Hunter and Ethan (Pellegren) and Brady (Harrison) and Jake Voi and others to step up. Nate Hirsch stepped up tonight and really played well, too.
“He was able to get some big runs on the outside, and got us that first goal.”
It wasn’t the easiest win, as a young and inexperienced Ozark team took a 1-0 lead early, then kept the pressure on late in the second half, until Daniels scored his final goal to seal the win.
“We did what we had to do, and it didn’t look pretty at times,” Palmer said. “But we found the goals and got away with the victory.”
Ozark (8-3) dictated the play in the early going, then broke the tie in the 20th minute, with Wade Korns taking a pass in the clear from T.K. Stine and scoring from about 15 yards out.
That lead only lasted a couple of minutes. Nixa’s Tanner Palmer had a shot from the right side of the goal deflected by Ozark keeper Sean Smith. Hirsch was there waiting and cleaned it up for an easy goal.
That’s when Daniels got going. He had a couple of good scoring chances in the last five minutes of the half, scoring first on a “quick start” free kick in the 36th minute. From about 20 yards out, he caught Ozark’s players still setting up, scoring easily into the lower left corner of the net.
“We’ve been able to play quick a few times,” Daniels said. “If we have the opportunity, then we have to take it and capitalize.”
The second goal for Daniels came just after halftime, in the 42nd minute. He found room streaking down the left side and struck from about 10 yards out for a 3-1 Nixa lead.
The Tigers made it a one-goal game in the 53rd minute, when Korns made a pretty play from the right side of the Nixa net, setting up Lawson Spence for an easy goal.
Ozark had six strong scoring chances in the final 24 minutes, even as Nixa settled back into a defensive shell. Spence had two shots sail over the net, and another saved by Nixa keeper Jakob Price.
“That’s our game,” Ozark coach Tom Davidson said. “It’s cruel sometimes. I really felt like in the first half, we had some better looks and we had some people open that we missed.
“I really felt like when it got to 3-2, we had seized some momentum and I thought something would fall for us. But it didn’t.”
Daniels ended the suspense with 25 seconds to play, finishing off his hat trick on a shot from 10 yards out.