On one end of the court, Nixa players have captured the fancy of Eagles coach Jay Osborne this pre-season.
“There are a lot of gym rats out here,” Osborne said. "They love basketball and have a passion for it. That's half the battle, having guys who love to come to the gym. We have that. We have guys who want to play.
“We've got guys who can shoot and make shots,” he continued. “I think the effort in transition going from defense to offense is real good. Everybody wants to score and shoot.”
That said, Osborne has not been happy with what his players are giving him defensively in practices. He warns without improved effort at that end of the court, Nixa will fall short of the program’s standards of success.
“Defensively we’re so far from being a competitive team,” Osborne said. “For some reason, it doesn’t seem to be a real priority on our agenda to play on both sides of the ball. I’ve been disappointed. The defense isn’t pretty. It’s not important to them. We’ll get their attention and it better become important to them or we’re going to have a real long year.
“We haven’t had one drawn charge in practice, does that tell you anything?” he added. “I also don’t think we’ve got more than three or four floor-burns going for loose balls.”
Osborne has been pleased enough elsewhere to state defense may be the only aspect of Nixa’s game keeping the Eagles from adding to the program’s long and glorious list of COC and post-season championships.
“If we learn how to play defense, I think we’ll have a great year,” he said. “Right now, though, it’s not a priority. Maybe that’s partly my fault. Maybe it should have been a priority from day one. I didn’t say a lot the first two weeks of practices. I’ve been really nice. But they’re going to have to start being held accountable for not playing on the defensive end. Defense is nothing but effort and hustle. It’s a mindset, an attitude. When we get that proper attitude, we’ll be all right.”
Nixa features a mix of veterans and newcomers in its backcourt and along the front line.
Returning guards are seniors Josh Mason and Evann Long and junior Kaleb Wofford. Mason endured an injury-riddled junior year last season, but still averaged a team-high 14.4 points a night. Long’s has earned the title of the Eagles’ defensive stopper. Wofford already has two year’s experience on his side
“We’ve got guys on the perimeter,” Osborne said.
They’ll be joined by freshman Kael Combs, a prized prospect with a strong lineage.
“Kael is going to help us out a lot,” Osborne said. “He’s got a chance to have a really good career.”
At the post are Jason Jones and Tanner Collard. Jones, a junior, earned extensive playing time last season, while Collard , a senior, saw limited duty. Jones averaged 5.8 points and 4.9 rebounds a game.
“We’re a little thin inside. We don’t have a lot of depth. But we can compensate for that,” Osborne said. “We might be playing five guards at times. That’s hard to guard.
“We got a lot of bad habits from the off-season that we’ve got to break,” he added. “But the effort is good offensively. We’re pretty unselfish offensively. We’re getting there.”
What has pleased Osborne to the umpteenth degree is being able to start practices at 2 p.m. during the eighth hour of the school day. Nixa instituted a new program this school year in which athletes can participate in a sport in place of a physical education class.
“What a concept, I’ve been waiting 28 years for someone to implement an eighth-hour athletic period,” Osborne said. “It’s about time we do something to pay our students back because some of our best students in the building are in the gym.
“I think it’s going to help us academically and I know it’s going to help us athletically,” he added. “We’re getting home 45 minutes to and hour earlier. It gives us more flexibility also when we can and cannot lift. Now, we can lift after practice and not be here until 6:30.”
Nixa debuts next Sunday against St. Elizabeth at the Norm Stewart Classic in Columbia. Other new additions to the Eagles’ slate include a matchup at Fayetteville, Arkansas, a journey to the Carthage Tournament and a home contest with Hartville.
“We take a lot of pride in who we play and how we play,” Osborne said.