By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Nixa, Mo. — On paper, Friday’s week three clash between Willard and Nixa looked to favor the visiting Tigers.
Fortunately for the Eagles, games are still played on the field.
Nixa linebacker Steven Ward II blocked a game-tying field goal attempt in the final minute of regulation to seal a 10-7 victory and notch the program’s first victory of the season.
Winless in the first two weeks, Nixa played like a team backed into a corner with nothing to lose.
The Eagles racked up 228 yards of offense, while the Tigers managed 219.
Head coach Richard Rehagen praised his team’s resilient nature with its back against the wall.
“We started 0-2, came out and really got after it tonight,” Rehagen said. “I’m awfully proud. Just kids playing hard, you know. Playing hard and motivated — knew they had a challenge. I thought they did a nice job.”
Right from the opening kickoff, Nixa sought to establish an identity along the line of scrimmage.
After forcing a punt on Willard’s opening series, the Eagles put together a 13-play, 44-yard drive that ended at the Tigers 28 yard line.
While Nixa turned the ball over on downs and failed to put points on the board, the tone was set for the evening.
“I thought our offensive focus was good, and I felt like our kids were clued in and geared into what we were doing,” Rehagen said.
What Nixa was doing included a heavy dose of Alex Wentz.
The senior running back rumbled for 78 of his team-high 89 yards in the first half.
Wentz spoke about rebounding from the team’s early losses.
“We were just hungry,” Wentz said. “We wanted to win and had a bad taste in our mouth after Republic. Our line just did great. They gave gaps to run, and I just took it.”
Late in the first quarter, a Willard interception by Dylan Leach gave the Tigers a golden opportunity inside the Nixa 20.
Three plays later, Garrett Rice took a direct snap and rumbled 12 yards for the game’s first score.
Nixa would answer just before half with a 33-yard field goal from Andrew Anello to trim the deficit to 7-3.
In the second half, Willard’s ground game started making noise, as well, with Rice rumbling for 48 of his 100 rushing yards in the third quarter, alone.
The Tiger attack sputtered late, however, when cornerback Jared Spence collected a costly fumble in Nixa territory and returned it 26 yards to the Willard 34.
Nine plays later, Ramone Green scored on a six-yard jet sweep.
With defenders focusing on Wentz, the freshman Green was able to find the end zone with a final shift at the goal line.
“We were running that play a lot — the outside sweep,” Green said. “The outside receiver had a good block, and the safety was coming over. It was me and him, one-on-one, so I knew I just had to make a move and get into the end zone.”
Green’s score gave Nixa a 10-7 advantage, which held up until the game’s final series.
With just under five minutes remaining and Nixa driving to close out the game, Willard’s Jed Brandon intercepted a Reid Potts pass and returned it to the Eagles 36.
From there, Willard shifted into straight ground-and-pound mode.
Frustrated for much of the evening, Tigers head coach Brock Roweton was pleased to see his team refocus and settle in for a potential game-winning score.
“Our mindset got right during that drive, and I was really proud of our kids,” Roweton said. “For the rest of the night, we just really lacked detailed execution.”
While Willard was able to grind down to the Nixa five yard line, back-to-back penalties pushed the Tigers all the way back to the 30.
Facing 4th and 26, Willard sent out junior Eli Aye to attempt a game-tying 47-yard field goal and set the stage for Ward’s heroics.
The junior crashed through the line, got a hand on the kick and managed to smother his own block seconds later.
“I saw they were going to kick, but I was ready for the fake, too,” Ward said. “I got down, I switched over, I went through and put my hands up. All I know is I felt it hit me. Ball was on the ground, and I went and picked it up. I was, like, ‘Oh my God … I just won this game.’”
Following the game, Coach Rehagen reflected on what a difference one big win can make to a program looking to turn things around.
“That’s a long way,” Rehagan said of the field goal attempt. “47-48 yards — it’s doable, but kid popped through there. We get a block, and it’s a celebration. When you get those wins, it just feels good, and they buy into more about what you’re doing and keep working. That’s what you set out to do every week.”
For Willard, the task now turns to refocusing efforts for the heart of the team’s schedule.
“We played really well last week,” Roweton said. “Unfortunately, if you’re going to be good, you’ve got to prove it week after week. Our team, when we execute, can be really good. I see good things coming to us as we go along this season.”
Up next for Nixa (1-2) is a trip down Highway 14 to face arch-rival Ozark, while Willard (1-2) looks to right the ship at home against Carl Junction.
Varsity Final: Nixa – 10, Willard – 7
Willard 7 0 0 0 — 7
Nixa 0 3 0 7 — 10
First quarter scoring
Willard – Garrett Rice 12-yard TD rush 0-7
(Eli Aye kick)
Second quarter scoring
Nixa – Andrew Anello 33-yard FG 3-7
Fourth quarter scoring
Nixa – Ramone Green 6-yard TD rush 10-7