By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Nixa Eagles have grown accustomed to the reloading ritual that hangs over so many football programs. They return just three offensive starters and four on defense from a 5-5 squad in 2017.
“It seems in the last few years that we’ve had to replace a lot of guys on both sides,” head coach Rich Rehagen said. “This year is really comparable. Some of our guys have to wait their time to play and by the time they’re seniors, they get in there and go. Then they graduate and you do it all over again. It’s that way.”
There is still a bounty of seniors to fill those spots. Rehagen expects to have close to 20 by the time the season opens at Carthage. Those experienced players are motivated from how their last two campaigns have ended: Nixa started 5-0 before a brutal back end to the schedule led to four straight losses.
After falling to Willard in the first round of districts in 2017, the new blood and new opportunities seem refreshing.
“This group is not afraid to put in the work. It doesn’t matter if it’s lifting weights or playing in a camp. I like that about this group.”
Senior running back Sean Sample is the top returning weapon and his role will be more emphasized in 2018. He led the Eagles with 982 yards and eight touchdowns. He also caught 13 passes for 258 yards and another four scores. That makes him the leading returning receiver since Nixa waved goodbye to four of their top five pass catchers, including tight end Alex Allen, now at Northern Iowa.
Jack Sanders also graduated after holding down the quarterback job in 2017. Junior Hunter Crabtree will get first crack at the opening after leading the junior varsity squad. He took just a handful of reps with the varsity, completing four of six passes with a touchdown.
Senior Elliott Rule and Lukas Roemen expect to be factors in the pass catching duties.
The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense. Leading tackler and All-COC senior Trent McFall is back following a year where he produced 67 tackles, an interception, and a touchdown. Fellow senior Nick Neilson and juniors Logan Ayers and Noah Gibson will join him.
Neilsen tallied 61 tackles and three sacks in 2017 and will now see a bigger role at running back. Ayers will also contribute more on the other side of the ball at tight end.
Senior lineman Taylor Cheek is the most experienced defender outside of that unit. He will find a largely brand new defensive line around and a new secondary behind him.
The reshuffled schedule has removed the logjam of COC-Large heavyweights from October and peppered them throughout the fall. Conference newcomer Joplin also travels to town before Nixa wraps up the regular season at Webb City.
As is the case with a new-look squad, Rehagen is looking for a crisp start in order to build a contender throughout the season.
“I want to see more consistency,” he said. “I want consistency in our execution. I want to get to a point where we do that naturally and go from there.”