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Lepant races by defenders, as Ozark runs win streak versus Nixa to eight in District final


After the second of his two goals Monday, Ozark’s Caleb Lepant slowly jogged toward midfield, motioned to Tigers coach Zack Owens and asked, ‘Can I get one?’

Owens happily obliged the senior midfielder/forward with a well-earned rest.

Lepant was fresh from unleashing a flurry of sprints downfield resulting in repeated shots on goal, his brace and an Ozark Class 4 District 5 championship.

Lepant’s goals were sandwiched around a score by teammate Jake Garner in the top-seeded Tigers' 3-1 victory versus third-seeded Nixa.

“That's out of character for me,” Lepant said of asking to be subbed for. “I was pretty gassed. I was making some runs up and down the field and wanted to sit for a second. After we got the two-goal lead, I figured that was a good time to get a rest.”

After Nixa gained a 1-0 lead less than two minutes into the match, Ozark answered by netting all three of its goals in what was an action-packed first half.

All the bandwagon jumpers who, to their credit, helped make for a large and loud crowd by soccer standards in SWMO, had to be delighted watching the onslaught of scoring opportunities by the Tigers.

“We were doing everything we could to get the fans out here for this one,” Ozark coach Zack Owens said. "We knew they'd show up, it just took a little extra ‘ask’ from us. They showed up and it was awesome. The atmosphere was amazing.”

Lepant responded to the big stage by showing off his skills and speed with and without the ball. He upped his single-season school-record goals total to 37.

He was able to set himself up for scoring chances by racing downfield and sprinting by the defender trying to keep up with him. 

All the while, Lepant was in control of the ball.

“He's very skilled and fast with the ball,” Owens said. “You’re always going to lose some speed when you have the ball at your feet because you're focused on controlling the ball. But he's still faster with the ball at his feet than 80 percent of kids without a ball.”

Lepant feels defenders often take for granted they will be able to match him step for step.

“I'm fast with the ball and I don't think defenders expect that,” Lepant said. “Usually, when a guy is on the ball he's a little slower and the defender has the advantage. I have a pretty good touch on the ball, so I know where it's going. I can put it where I want it and run at the pace I want.”

Owens is often amazed while watching Lepant seemingly find an extra gear during his pursuits. 

“When I think of Caleb finding an extra gear, I think of last year against Nixa and he was playing up top. He went sprinting 60 yards and made a tackle to stop their attack,” Owens said. “That's something I can't coach. That's within his heart and makes him a special player.”

Lepant relates the ball provides him all the motivation he needs to reel off a handful of 40- to 50-yard sprints.

“With the ball at your foot, the adrenaline is pumping and you're good,” he said. "But the second that ball is out, the adrenaline wears off and you're done. It kicks in that you're tired.”

Lepant played all of the second half while picking and choosing when to go full-speed.

“With a two-goal lead, I played more conservatively,” he said. “I didn't have to make as many runs up the field. I was playing smarter.”

In between Lepant’s goals, Garner scored off a corner kick from Phin Scott.

Ozark kept the ball on its side of the field for the majority of the first half. Lepant narrowly missed a hat trick, with one of his shots hitting the post. Tigers forward Alex Williams had a shot carom off the crossbar. 

“Our pace of play was really good,” Lepant said. “We found the right passes we needed to find. We're at our peak.”

Ozark was sharp, despite Williams enduring cramps and Scott being slowed by a leg injury.

“We had to put people in longer than they normally would. play,” Owens said. “They did well. They had positive minutes.”

Nixa’s comeback efforts in the second half included two strong shots on goal that were denied by Ozark ‘keeper Carson Sandgren. One shot was hit with enough power that the impact of the ball on Sandgren’s stomach momentarily took the wind out of him.

“Luckily, he's a tough kid and was able to work through it,” Owens said. “Good teams are going to get good shots on goal. We tell the kids we're going to have to come up with a big save or two and he had two unbelievable saves.”

Ozark (24-2-2) has won eight straight against Nixa (16-9) and beaten the Eagles in the playoffs three of the past four years.

The Tigers’ 2-1 overtime win over the Eagles at Districts last year ended amidst debate whether the winning goal crossed the goal area.

There was no disputing the outcome this time around.

“Beforehand we said, 'Boys, let's try to come out of this unscathed and make it where it doesn't come down to a last-minute decision or one mistake. Let's handily take care of business,’” Owens said.

“I didn't see much controversy in it last year. We deserved to win,” Lepant said. “They can't take this away from us. There's no doubt.”

Ozark advances to the Quarterfinals and will host Rockhurst (21-0) at noon Saturday.