Jackson Cantwell was part of a showdown of sorts Friday featuring the two premier offensive linemen in SWMO and also unexpectedly was involved in a face-off against the best tight end in SWMO.
Cantwell loved every minute of it, while leading Nixa to a 56-34 whipping of Joplin in the Class 6 District 5 championship game.
Coach John Perry’s bunch captured the program’s first District title in eight years.
From his offensive tackle post, Cantwell picked up plenty enough pancake blocks for Nixa to score on its first six possessions and light up the scoreboard with 42 first-half points.
The 6-foot-71/2, 300-pounder also lined up at defensive end for a handful of plays and lo and behold, recorded a tackle.
“It was fun,” Cantwell said of hopping over to the defensive side. “We rotated a lot of guys in different spots tonight. We had different guys on offense and different guys on defense. We've got to do what we've got to do to win football games.
“Perry didn't like the idea at first. He questioned a little bit of my running and basically called me fat,” Cantwell added with a laugh. “But he came around a little bit.”
Cantwell was inserted at defensive end opposite Joplin tight end Whit Hafer, a Mizzou commit.
“Jackson is so strong that we felt we could put him on top of (Hafer) and get after him a little bit,” Perry said. “They use their tight end off the line of scrimmage about 60 percent of the time. That was our thought, to get a little more strength at that point of attack. Jackson did a nice job. He'll do whatever we need him to do.”
Cantwell’s regular duties, of course, are clearing gaps and providing protection for Nixa’s skill-position players. Ditto for offensive tackle Dontrell Holt, an Iowa State commit, in Joplin’s offense.
Cantwell is well-acquainted with Holt, with both throwing the shot put and discus in the spring. Cantwell found himself paying a bit more attention to his counterparts Friday than usual, given his status as a two-way player.
“Usually, I'm watching film (along Nixa’s sideline). But tonight I watched (the opposing offensive linemen) a little more to see how they were doing and how we were reacting to them,” Cantwell said. “(Holt) is solid. There's a reason he's committed to Iowa State and I think he's going to be able to adjust well at the next level.”
Try as they might, Holt, Hafer and other Joplin offensive stars the likes of running back Quin Renfro and quarterback Hobbs Gooch couldn’t keep pace with Nixa’s offense.
Nixa (11-0) was out in front 21-0 as early as nine minutes into the game and had 300 yards of total offense as early as halftime.
Cantwell actually didn’t rate it as one of his better efforts
“I was trying my best,” he said. “I didn't play my best game. I’ve got a lot to clean up. Even at my floor, though, I still can compete at a high level.”
Fellow offensive lineman TJ Eckert praised Joplin’s defensive linemen and linebackers for their gamesmanship, but added they were no match for Nixa in the trenches.
“They were very cordial and sportsman(like) and they were physical. But they don't have the size or strength to match the time we put in the weight room and the sheer size we possess," Eckert said. "They didn't have the size or strength to push us where they wanted us to go. It was a huge advantage to us. Last time we played them, they were a little more explosive off the ball. This time, they were still formidable. But they were more hesitant.”
Nixa inserted running back Malachi Rider in its starting lineup for the first time since Week One versus Webb City. He responded with three touchdown runs and 135 yards rushing on 27 carries.
"We thought tonight, with him being a senior, he earned that right,” Perry said of Rider’s start.
“(Running backs coach Chance Potts) was talking to me about it and said I definitely earned it,” Rider said.
Fellow running back Dylan Rebura was also part of Nixa’s fireworks. He had 198 yards rushing on 25 carries that included two touchdowns, to go along with a three-yard touchdown catch.
Nixa’s passing attack also included quarterback Nate Uber firing a 49-yard touchdown pass to wideout Wyatt Vincent.
“The first half was as pretty a half of football as I've ever seen,” Perry said. “It was a fantastic.”
“Our start was very explosive,” Eckert said. "We were very on point.”
“I thought we were going to put up 70 points,” Rider said. “That shows what we can do to good teams. Putting 50 points up on the board that quickly, we can do that to anyone.”
Joplin (7-4) received 185 yards rushing on 20 carries from Renfro.
Joplin had five touchdowns, but also five turnovers. Gooch was guilty of four interceptions, with Nixa’s Parker Mann, Ty Kellis, Randy Flint and Spencer Ward each picking off a pass.
Nixa’s special teams gave the winners an extra offensive possession, with linebacker Colton Hale pouncing on the pigskin after a mishandled Joplin catch on a pooch kickoff.
“That’s why we do it,” Hale said of the pooch kicks. “We orchestrated our whole plan.”
Nixa advances to the Class 6 Quarterfinals for the first time in program history. The Eagles will travel Friday to Rockhurst (10-1), which knocked off No. 1-ranked Lee’s Summit North (10-1) 24-21.
Nixa 56, Joplin 34
Joplin 7 14 7 6 - 34
Nixa 21 21 7 7 - 56
N - Malachi Rider 12 run (Jordan Cribbs kick)
N - Wyatt Vincent 49 pass from Nate Uber (Cribbs kick)
N - Rider 4 run (Cribbs kick)
J - Whit Hafer 13 pass from Hobbs Gooch (Toby Ipsen kick)
N - Dylan Rebura 5 run (Cribbs kick)
J - Quin Renfro 1 run (Ipsen kick)
N - Rider 2 run (Cribbs kick)
N - Rebura 3 pass from Uber (Cribbs kick)
J - Gooch 9 run (Ipsen kick)
N - Rylan Michel 25 run (Cribbs kick)
J - Chavis Coleman 1 run (Ipsen kick)
N - Rebura 53 run (Cribbs kick)
J - Jett Beal 51 pass from Gooch (kick no good)