With the exception of 80 minutes this past Saturday, Ozark’s defenders have played up to their lofty standards and “The West Bluff Wall” moniker they received in the pre-season.
The Tigers posted their sixth shutout on the season and their seventh straight win against Nixa by blanking the Eagles in a 2-0 triumph Tuesday.
The Christian County Cup came on the heels of Ozark falling to Chaminade 4-3 a few days earlier, leaving the Tigers and theitr defenders in particular eager to gain redemption.
“Being humbled brings out the best in us,” defender Connor Cummings said. “We didn't want the same thing to happen again. I’m happy we bounced back for tonight’s game. It's a lot more important than Chaminade was.”
“Chaminade is a really good team. But (the loss) was very humbling,” defender Caden McGehee said. “It took a toll on me. It’s nice to come back tonight and post the shutout.”
Many of the areas in which Cummings, McGehee and fellow defenders Jake Garner and August McComas felt they were subpar against Chaminade, they returned to their customary standards against Nixa.
“We didn't let runners through like we did Saturday,” McGehee said. “We stayed with our men. That played a really big part in tonight's defending.”
“Obviously, we weren't happy with Saturday. The four of us felt like it was our fault,” Garner said. “We came out slow against Chaminade. But we’ve moved past it. It was a good wake-up call for us. Our communication was better tonight and we knew we had to be locked in from the first minute.”
“We were better on long balls, reading their long balls and going up for 50/50 balls,” Cummings said. “In every aspect that we did badly against Chaminade, we stepped up 100 percent tonight.”
“The West Bluff Wall” has set its sights on Ozark’s single-season school record of 0.7 goals allowed per match. The Tigers’ defensive average is currently at 0.8.
“We should have really high expectations,” McGehee said. “With four senior defenders, we shouldn't let a whole lot through.”
“A lot of people don’t refer to us as Connor, Jake, Caden and August. They refer to us as the "West Bluff Wall,” Cummings said. “It’s a neat nickname and it’s stuck.”
The Tigers (8-2 overall and 3-0 in the COC) did their best to stick to Nixa forward Caeden Cloud, while ever mindful of his exceptionally strong right leg.
"My thinking when I defend him is to limit his touches, get up close to him and he wants to go to his right all day,” Cummings said. “Push him to his left, get in his face and don't give him a lot of room to move.”
Cloud appeared to have rocketed in a goal from 35 yards out, but it was waved off due to a handball foul when he received the ball.
The handball call came late, but Cloud admitted to coach Evan Palmer it was the right call.
“I went to (Cloud) after that and told him that was a great shot and it was unlucky they called it back,” Cummings said.
Cloud was kept in check the majority of the night, but broke loose for three thunderous shots on goal during the final portion of the second half. He had one shot ricochet off a post and was denied by Ozark goalie Carson Sandgren during another shot.
“Caeden finally got loose,” Nixa coach Evan Palmer said. "I think he got a little upset, went for it and started to test the goalie and put pressure on him. When he gets a hold of (the ball) and is accurate, boy he can be pretty good.”
Nixa (3-5 and 1-2) has been shut out in three matches and had one goal in each of its other two losses.
Palmer was encouraged with the Eagles’ composure against an older Ozark outfit.
“Ozark is a veteran team. Their senior class is superb,” he said. ‘When you're the underdog, you want to give yourself a chance to win and we did that. I'm happy with the effort. The boys went with the game plan.”
Ozark’s second-half goals were provided by Alex Williams, off an assist from Caleb Lepant, and Phin Scott.
“Knowing this could be our last game against Nixa, it was a must-win,” Scott said.
Noting the popularity of “The West Bluff Wall,” Scott is searching for a nickname for Ozark’s forwards and midfielders.
“I'm a little jealous,” he said of “The West Bluff Wall.” “Caleb, Alex and I are calling us “The Big Three.” We'll have to come up with something better later.”