By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
NIXA – After all the hugs, the tears and postgame fireworks – and certainly after so many years of near-misses against one of the state’s football machines – Nixa junior quarterback Connor Knatcal and senior receiver Jordyn Turner stood outside the locker room still in awe.
That, and still fired up.
“We’re tough, and we’re going to go out and hit anyone in the mouth, no matter who it is,” Knatcal said. “We’re not going to back down from anybody.”
The Nixa Eagles certainly authored that narrative after beating the Webb City Cardinals for the first time in program history, in a 41-27 victory on Friday night at Eagle Stadium.
Senior Jaden Aven rushed for three second-half touchdowns, the first giving Nixa a 28-12 advantage late in the third quarter, and Knatcal and Turner connected on a 59-yard TD strike – on a third-and-15 — on the Eagles’ next series on night when Nixa continuously answered the bell, er, the Cardinals.
It was such a program-defining win for the Eagles, in fact, that the public address announcer read a rare postgame statement that thanked Webb City Football for setting the bar high and inspiring Nixa to build a team that could celebrate a night like this against the Cardinals themselves.
A year ago, Webb City beat Nixa 28-0. This time, the atmosphere was just different.
“Tonight, (we) honestly believed we could,” Nixa coach John Perry said. “This year, when we walked out the door, we believed that we were going to win. And I’ll be honest – I love (Webb City coach) John Roderique to death – but tonight we had the better team. And that don’t happen often. We have to take advantage of that when it does.”
Even then, Roderique, now north of 300 career wins and 12 state championships since 1997, nearly dashed Nixa’s hopes.
The night was marked by Webb City rallies. Down 7-0 after Nixa’s 11-play, 59-yard drive and yet the Cardinals scored. Down 14-6 just a minute before halftime and yet they got a Dante Washington 70-yard kick return that set up his 17-yard TD pass reception. Down 28-12 and struck again. And then bulled their way for 66 yards in nine plays to pull within 34-27.
And they even had the ball, after Dupree Jackson picked off a pass, and drove to the Nixa 44 – before losing a fumble with 3:45 left.
“If we could just get one break … if we could get just that one break …,” Roderique said, somewhat shaking his head. “I told our kids that there wasn’t one guy who didn’t think we’d go down and score (late in the fourth). I’m proud of our kids. We kept battling.”
The play of the night belonged to Nixa. That arguably was the 59-yarder from Knatcal to Turner on a deep slant route on third-and-15.
Turner, a talented basketball player, had a one-on-one on a corner cover man and got just enough in front of him that, when he leaped for the ball at about the 15-yard line, he angled his body, caught the ball and raced to the end zone.
Nixa had called a timeout and switched plays, to 7 slant. That’s Turner’s number.
“They were biting down pretty hard on the slant all night,” Knatchal said.
Said Turner, “Going into halftime, (coaches) were talking about the slant all half. ‘Watch 7 slant. Watch 7’ slant. And I told coach I was wanting a slant touchdown. … We were going to run a different play in that huddle.”
Nixa had so many other big plays in a game in which sophomore Spencer Ward rushed for 158 yards on 25 carries, Aven went for 95 yards on seven carries (all after halftime) and Knatcal threw for 191 yards on 10-of-15 passing with one interception.
– Nixa’s first two TDs were Knatchal connecting with Kael Combs on passes – the first on a lob pass on a slant-and-out, the other on a spectacular, over-the-shoulder catch in the back corner of the end zone.
– The Eagles, on the next series after their first TD, stopped Webb City on fourth-and-goal at the 5, on what appeared to be a broken play by the Cardinals.
– Aven had rushing TDs of 27, 4 and 4 yards. The first TD came five after Ward’s 37-yard sprint on the first play of the second half. His second TD came five plays after Combs’ 34-yard reception. It was 28-12 at that point.
– Jordan Tyler’s interception in the final two minutes all but sealed it.
Webb City’s Cade Wilson rushed for 149 yards on 24 carries.
“They’ve got some guys that are hard to match up with, with anybody in the state of Missouri,” Roderique said. “If there was one thing that stood out, we just didn’t tackle very well on defense. If you charted their yardage after initial contact, it was a lot. They’re big and strong, and we’re not as big and strong as those guys. Let’s call it what it is.”