WILLARD — Nixa linebacker Jaden Aven smiled Friday as he recalled his carefree nights as a youth attending Willard football games and not watching a minute of football.

“I was over there throwing the football around with my friends,” Aven said, glancing at the outskirts of the field.

Following Nixa’s 42-6 Week Three win over Willard, the final member of the Eagles’ entourage to leave the Tigers’ field, not surprisingly, was Nixa defensive coordinator Phil Wickwar. He, too, recalled his days going to and from along Olympian Boulevard in the smallest city in the COC (Willard’s population still hasn’t reached 6,000).

Wickwar coached the Tigers for 10 years, including four seasons as their head coach from 2004-08.

“Things change. Every time I come back here there is less and less that looks familiar, other than buildings.,” Wickwar said. “I talked to a few people tonight who I worked with. Jamalee Hancock, the volleyball coach, and I worked together. Her son, Evan, is a senior now (and scored Willard’s lone touchdown Friday).”

Likewise, Aven chatted with two long-time pals, Willard running back Blaine Willard and Tigers lineman Sergio Hernandez.

“They’re good friends of mine,” Aven said.

It was all in all a happy reunion for Aven and Wickwar. But they were also happy afterward to head to Nixa where they now affectionately call home.

“Willard was a good place for me,” Wickwar said. “But it was time to put my family first for once and go to Nixa (11 years ago). It’s worked out very well. I’ve been appreciative of the change.”

“Growing up, I wanted to play for Willard,” said Aven, who transferred from Willard to Nixa following the Christmas break during his eighth-grade year. “I went to Willard for eight years. Going to Nixa was a big change since I had gone to Willard my whole life. A new school was weird. I didn’t know anyone. But I feel moving to Nixa has been the best thing for me and my family.”

Wickwar made an immediate impact at Nixa and has continued to flourish. His work as the school’s strength and conditioning coach is well-renowned by administrators, coaches and players alike.

Things haven’t always gone so smoothly at Nixa for Aven, even though onlookers raved over his potential since his arrival. By his own admission, he was a sulky sophomore a year ago. Aven said he didn’t have anyone to blame but himself for not progressing last season.

“Last year was tough. I was always a starter growing up. I was looking at everyone playing last year while I was on the sideline wishing I could get in,” Aven said. “I had an attitude problem. This year, I fixed that. I feel like my work ethic has gotten better. Also, I’ve become a better team player, instead of just playing for myself. I wanted to get better as a person and a football player. I feel I’m a new guy, all new.

“It’s been rewarding for me,” he added. “I’ve been getting the job done.”

Aven is among Nixa’s top tacklers. He and safety Riley Childs both had a team-high 20 tackles entering Week Three.

Aven is doing what he does best.

“I’ve always been better on defense than offense,” he said. “I played a little running back my freshman and sophomore years, but defense has always been my specialty.”

Wickwar didn’t know Aven while they were both in Willard. But he has watched him with a keen eye at Nixa because of the star potential he has seen in him.

“Oh my gosh has he taken a step forward for us this year,” Wickwar said. “We all go through (growing pains). He’s got all the skills and is a smart athlete. We feel like he’s going to be an all-conference, if not an all-state type of player. He’s understood it’s fun to sacrifice everything you have to be part of something that is bigger than yourself. That’s what all these kids are experiencing.” 

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