By Brock Sisney (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
CARTHAGE — Carthage sophomore defensive back Davion King made the play that swung momentum back in favor of the home Tigers.
Trailing 21-12 early in the fourth quarter, the Nixa Eagles had moved the ball out of the shadow of their own end zone and a pair of Reid Potts (quarterback) and Smith Wheeler (receiver) connections had the Eagles inside Carthage territory.
Just one play after Wheeler made an over-the-shoulder catch on a perfectly-thrown ball with two defenders in coverage, King intercepted Potts at the Carthage 20 and returned it back near midfield.
The Tigers then drove 56 yards in 11 plays and extended their lead to 28-12 en route to a 35-12 victory Friday night at David Haffner Stadium.
“I love it that he got it,” Carthage head coach Jon Guidie said of the King interception. “They were picking on him a little bit in that series before and he gave up a couple big pass plays there. For him to come back and get that interception, that’s going to be really good for his confidence going forward. He’s a sophomore, guys. He shouldn’t even be out here. He should be playing Monday nights, and he’s out here in this atmosphere, this environment. He stepped up and made a big play for us.”
Carthage finished off a perfect 8-0 regular season and jumped ahead of Webb City for the No. 1 district seed — 48.53 points for the Tigers, 48.17 for the Cardinals — on the strength of their 23-point win over a Class 6 Nixa squad. Both defending state champions have byes in a Class 5, District 6 where the other four teams (Ozark, Republic, Branson, winless Neosho) have combined for five less wins this season than Carthage and Webb City.
Of course, there will be plenty more discussion since Carthage and 8-1 Webb City did not play in Week 4 due to the COVID-19 virus hitting Carthage hard that week and forcing the Tigers to cancel the game. Webb City defeated Class 6 Kickapoo 38-10 instead that week.
“It matters to our players,” Guidie said. “No matter what, they deserve a conference championship, I mean, undefeated regular season. You guys do the math, but that’s why it’s important because I know it’s important to those guys, it’s a goal that they had coming in. We won it in 2016 and we hadn’t done it since. That’s something very important to our coaches and our players.”
The Tigers head into the postseason with 17 straight overall victories, with their last defeat against Webb City in Week 5 last season.
“These guys are a special group,” Guidie said. “We talked all week about how this is a big game and we’ve been in big games before. We’ve been there and done that. Champions are gonna rise to the occasion, they’re gonna overcome adversity. We come out first play of the game, they go 80 yards for a score, and our kids didn’t flinch. They didn’t flinch and they very easily could have. They came back and got after it. I love this group.”
Nixa sophomore running back Ramone Green hit Carthage with a 80-yard touchdown run down the Nixa sideline on the first play from scrimmage and the Eagles led 6-0 only 15 seconds in. By just his third carry, still early in the first quarter, Green passed 100 yards.
Carthage scored 21 unanswered to head into the half with a 21-6 lead and while the first two Carthage scoring drives took advantage of reasonably short fields, their last possession before halftime totaled 13 plays and 92 yards and took 5 minutes, 48 seconds off the clock, leaving Nixa with minimal time.
Facing a fourth-and-1 at their own 30, headed into the nasty north northeast wind that affected both teams all night, Guidie made a decision to go for it rather than punt.
“Our offensive line said NO,” Guidie said. “PUT IT ON US. PUT IT ON US. We ran it, got the first down, and ended up scoring there. That was huge.
“I don’t think they get enough credit. We’re not big all the way across there, but we’ve got some good-sized kids and the greatest thing about it is that none of them play defense. That’s unusual for us, because usually we have … they all get to go over there (sideline) and rest and get to come out fourth quarter and do what they do.”
Headed in the opposite direction, though, Carthage won the field position battle on 48- and 45-yard punts by senior quarterback Patrick Carlton, the latter putting Nixa all the way back at their own 1-yard line. Between Carlton’s punts, a blocked field goal, and kicker Caleb Calvin’s 5-for-5 on extra points and multiple kickoffs that made Nixa start at the 20, Carthage dominated special teams.
Starting the second half, Carthage narrowly missed the opportunity to go ahead three scores, as senior receiver Justin Sneed fumbled at the 1 and it was recovered by Nixa in the end zone. The Eagles then answered with the game’s longest drive in terms of number of plays, a drive that started 10 yards back due to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, one of several penalties called Friday night against Nixa.
The Eagles kept their 18-play, 90-yard drive alive by converting fourth downs four times, highlighted by Green’s 22-yard catch down to the Carthage 3 on fourth-and-12. Four plays later, Green scored on a 3-yard run and Nixa trailed 21-12.
The Eagles finished the regular season 7-2 with their losses coming against Webb City and Carthage, both on the road and in two of the last three weeks. Nixa remained No. 2 in the Class 6, District 3 standings and the Eagles open against Lee’s Summit North (4-5).