About the only blemish during Nixa’s undefeated run to its COC championship has been an ACL tear senior safety Broden Mabe suffered in Week Seven on a kickoff versus Willard.
“We lost Broden and that hurts me,” Eagles safety and Mabe's best friend Spencer Ward said. “So far, he's the only one (out for the season). He's going to rehab and we're all praying for him. I'm going to get a ring for him.”
Ward and his Nixa teammates appear primed to make a run at a state championship ring. A win versus Ozark this week in the Backyard Brawl will assure the Eagles of a No. 1 seed, and the first-round bye that comes with it, in Class 6 District 5.
Nixa could be as rested, recovered and as healthy as any Eagles coach, player and fan could possibly hope for entering the post-season.
That’s been a theme throughout the regular season.
Nixa’s injuries have been few and far between. Prior to losing Mabe, the only injuries of note were a sprained ankle suffered by running back Dylan Rebura in the pre-season and wide receiver Rylan Michel suffering a bone bruise in a knee in Week Six versus Carl Junction.
Rebura missed Nixa's season-opener, but has returned to make a run at a 1,000-yard season.
Michel was sidelined for a week, before returning to play in Week Eight at Republic. He was part of one of the game’s biggest plays, hauling in a 17-yard reception and fourth-and-nine to set up Jordan Cribbs’ game-winning 21-yard field goal.
“It's awesome to be back,” Michel said. “It was hard to watch everybody go and not be able to do play. I was worried about something being torn. We prayed on it all week. Praise the Lord, everything came back clear.”
The good Lord and good fortune, “Knock on wood,” Michel interjects, have no doubt been on Nixa’s side.
“Some of it is luck,” running back Malachi Rider said.
“There is some luck to it,” coach John Perry agrees. “But it's also about doing everything you can to take care of your athletes. That's a big reason why we have stayed as healthy as we have.”
During his four-year tenure at Nixa, Perry has been as pleased with the progress in the Eagles’ strength and conditioning program, under the leadership of John Gold, as anything he’s helped get accomplished.
“We lift year-round. We don't take a week off,” Perry said. “We prepare very well. We do landing drills for our knees. A lot of what we do in the weight room is injury-prevention. It’s paying off.”
The only game Ward has missed in his three seasons as a starter was against Carthage his sophomore year two years ago due to an Achilles injury.
With Ward having been a part of more than 200 tackles the past two years, as well as filling in on offense and special teams, he’s been involved in countless collisions. He attributes his ability to repeatedly bounce back to the Eagles’ strength and conditioning program.
“I'll have aches and pains and I ask coach Gold what I can do in the weight room to help me actively recover," Ward said. “He helps me every time.”
Since his arrival at Nixa this year, Rider has exhibited unending determination while somehow staying on his feet upon taking hit after hit from the opposition. On his way to 18 touchdown runs, he’s grown increasingly thankful for the Eagles’ emphasis on recovery.
The players are often rewarded after a practice with some sort of protein to help replenish their muscles.
“Every weekend I'm recovering, but I'm back on the field on Monday ready to go,” Rider said. “We do so much work. We take our recovery very serious.”
Perry learned everything he ever needed to know about the importance of injuries while taking two of his Pearl, Mississippi, teams to back-to-back state championship game appearances.
“If you're going to win a state championship, you’re going to play 14-15 weeks and you've got to keep having your best players playing,” Perry said. “If your best players aren't playing, you're not going to win. We got beat in the 2016 state championship game with five starters on the sideline. The following year, we won the state championship and we didn't have any starters out.
“You're not going to save them all,” he added “But we’re trying to be the best we can be in that category. We owe it to our kids and if you're trying to win, you've gotta have your best players out there.”