PECULIAR — First-year Nixa head coach John Perry thought about how far his team had come as tears flowed down his seniors’ faces.
At first, he didn’t think his team had it in them to make it as far as it did.
“Oh my gosh, man,” Perry said. “I remember the first time we went out there and put pads on. I went home and told my wife ‘I think I’m going to quit and go home’ because I haven’t seen anything in my whole life of an inside drill as bad as the one I saw.
“We obviously went to work.”
Nixa’s season came to an end Friday night at Raymore-Peculiar (10-2) in an 18-15 loss in the Class 6, District 3 championship. The Eagles (9-3) were one of the final eight teams in the state entering the night.
The turnaround for the Nixa Eagles football program comes after going 5-6. The Eagles hadn’t had a winning record since 2016 when it went 6-5.
Perry’s first season saw the Eagles start the year 6-0 with a thrilling win over Joplin and a thumping of cross-county rival Ozark along the way.
“We turned a team that nobody really wanted to play for into a team that’s going to make an impact on the whole community of Nixa,” senior standout Steven Ward II said. “We turned our whole community around and we did that as a team.”
The Eagles had their opportunities on Friday night but far too often did plays slip through their hands.
Dropped passes plagued throughout. The Panthers had chunk plays that turned into points even while the Eagles defense gave the team an opportunity to win it.
Ray-Pec scored on its first drive after Phillip Fager began the game with a 48-yard run. The Panthers were forced to kick a field goal. On their next drive, they drove inside the Nixa 10 but turned it over.
Fager scored on a nine-yard touchdown early in the second quarter shortly after Nixa quarterback Reid Potts threw an interception deep in his own territory.
Nixa got two points the board with 2:41 left in the half when Raymore-Peculiar was called for intentional grounding while the quarterback was in the end zone. On fourth and inches with 15 seconds left in the half, the Eagles cut Ray-Pec’s lead to two thanks to a trick play that saw Jaden Aven score a touchdown.
Eagles senior Riley Childs helped give his team a lead by intercepting a pass early in the second half. Ramone Green scored a seven-yard touchdown right after to give the Eagles a 15-10 lead.
Raymore-Peculiar responded while getting the ball in the hands of an impressive sophomore receiver in Jaidyn Doss to retake the lead at 18-15.
Holding calls and a lack of consistency in the run game doomed the Eagles on drives while trying to retake the lead. Dominance along the Ray-Pec defensive line kept the pressure on Potts — who threw a desperation deep ball with 2:10 left on third-and-long and was intercepted. The Panthers ran out the clock from there.
“We didn’t make the plays we were making all year long,” Perry said. “When you get in and the competition’s good, you have to make those plays. Everybody is good when you get to this point in the season and we just didn’t make the plays to win the game.”
Nixa appears to have a bright future in front of it with young players like Green and a capable young quarterback in Austin McCracken.
Perry changed the culture at Nixa in his first year as head coach. He made his kids believe and he doesn’t think they’re too far off from going even further in the future.
“We’re not far,” Perry said. “We’re going to go to work and we’re going to get bigger and we’re going to get stronger. That’s one thing I feel really good about.”
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. You can subscribe to his free “Bears Beat” newsletter on News-Leader.com. He’s also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.