JOPLIN — As much as Joplin running back Quin Renfro probably would prefer not to rehash the details of a loss, he’ll likely let his contacts at South Dakota State know about another highlight turned in by Nixa safety Spencer Ward.
An interception by Ward that essentially was a pick-six loomed ever so large in Nixa’s 35-27 triumph at Joplin on Friday.
Ward picked off a Joplin pass at the Joplin 35-yard line and ran it to the one, setting up a Nixa touchdown in the final minutes of the first half. It gave Nixa (5-0) the lead for good.
Just as everyone in Nixa is a Ward fan, so, too is Renfro. Ward and Renfro are tight friends who have talked together about being college teammates. Renfro is a South Dakota State commit who woud love for Ward to be the same. But so far the Jackrabbits haven’t made a play for Ward.
“He’s been like a birdie in the air for me,” Ward said of Renfro’s recruiting rapport with South Dakota State coaches regarding Ward. “But so far it hasn’t worked, probably the height thing (5-foot-9). That’s the one school in the Missouri Valley Conference that hasn’t talked to me.”
Ward and Renfro have a friendship that dates back six years.
“We met at seventh-grade COC track and have been friends ever since,” Ward said. “We keep in touch all the time. He’s one of my good fiends, even though we live and hour and a half away from each other. We’re like brothers for real. But on the field during a play, we’re not. We go head to head.”
Over the summer, Renfro stayed at Ward's home for a couple days and they worked out together.
“We compete in the training room, too," Ward said. “His work transforms out on the field.”
Ward and Renfro both put on quite a performance Friday.
Renfro returned after missing three weeks with a back injury and ran 17 times for 177 yards and two touchdowns. He had a 65-yard run called back due to a holding call.
“He said he was going to try to get back for this game and he did. He seemed fine,” Ward said.
Ward started the night’s scoring by turning a screen pass into a catch-and-run 67-yard touchdown reception midway through the first quarter.
Nixa led 14-13 with a minute-plus remaining in the first half, when Ward posted his first interception on the season. On the next play, Malachi Rider had a one-yard touchdown run and Nixa led 21-13 halftime.
“Turnovers are always great plays, they turn the tide and change momentum,” Ward said. “I’ve got to make those type of plays. I’m one of the playmakers on this team.
“(The receiver) tried to juke me out to run a corner (route), but instead ran a post,” he added. “I sat on it, got hip to hip with the guy and saw the ball. It was right behind me and I took it.”
Both Ward and coach John Perry felt Ward wasn’t tackled until he crossed the goal line.
"That was an awesome read by Spencer and a great return,” Perry said. “I thought he scored. But they had couple eagle-eyes zoomed in on it and they said he didn’t score. He had a fantastic game. You expect him to make those plays.”
Ward actually gained a bit of personal redemption. Even though he had a touchdown catch, weighing heavily on his mind was another pass he failed to catch.
“I had a drop. It’s my first one, which I’m mad about,” he said. “I’ve got to catch everything my way, regardless if it’s on offense or defense.”
Nixa hardly went to the air at all the rest of the night, understandably keeping the ball on the ground, given the results.
Rebura's connection with Joplin
Dylan Rebura carried the ball a career-high 25 times for 159 yards and a touchdown. The Joplin game is always a big one for him, what with his brothers, Draven and Drew VanGilder, having starred for Joplin the past several years.
Draven and Drew are now freshmen at Truman State and made the trip to Joplin to see Friday’s game.
“They texted me they were coming and I told them, 'We were going to have to show the Joplin Eagles up,' since this is their hometown,” Rebura said. “Some of (the Joplin players) I made friends with them my freshman year and we’ve grown up (together) since on the varsity.”
Nixa repeatedly went to Rebura and even though everyone in the stadium knew he was getting the ball, he still gained yards behind Nixa’s dominant offensive line.
“Our O-line is big. I’m proud of them,” Rebura said. “We’re so big and I feel like we outworked everyone all summer and we have the best coach in the state of Missouri.”
Rider reaffirms his role as 'The Closer'
Rider reached the end zone on his one-yard plunge in the first half and from eight and 22 yards in the second half. He had 19 carries for 105 yards.
On his final touchdown, Rider made like a pinball while bouncing off of would-be tacklers. The sensational score is a play of the year candidate. A Joplin defender hit Rider at his knees to no avail and another defender hit him at the shoulder pad-level with no success.
“I was hyped and at the same time I was thinking, ‘No way I just got that.’ I was excited,” Rider said. “Good balance I guess. Every time I run the ball, I have the mindset I’m not going down with the first tackle, that I’m going to bring six guys down with me.”
Rider’s touchdowns total is 10 on only 59 carries.
"Between the (opponent’s) 40 and the end zone is my signature spot,” Rider said. “If I see the end zone in range, I’m full blast and putting it in sixth gear all the way. Every time I’m in the red zone, I’m going to score. No one is going to stop me.”
Perry has been thrilled with the manner in which Rebura and Rider have rotated as Nixa’s feature back.
“They are a heck of a tandem and are going to be hard to stop behind that big offensive line,” Perry said. “They’re both so hard to tackle and complement each other.
“They both understand they’re better because of each other,” he added. “Nobody has to get worn out and run the ball fatigued. They can tag-team it. When Alabama has been their best, they’ve had two running backs and they’ve rotated them to keep the fresh.”
Freshman McKnight makes his presence felt
Rider’s final score made it a two-possession game with four minutes remaining. During that drive, Nixa called freshman Adam McKnight’s number for a tight end reverse on third-and six at midfield. He responded with a run of nearly 10 yards to get a first down.
To repeat, Nixa went to a freshman with the game on the line.
“I was kind of shocked. I didn’t expect (the ball) in that moment,” McKnight said. “But when I got it, I knew what to do. I received the pitch, saw the gap my pulling guard had created and I cut up field for the first down.
“We’ve run that play in practice a couple times and talked about calling it in previous games, but it never really lined up,” he added. “That situation lined up really well for it and it worked.”
Expect plenty more from McKnight in the future.
“We’ve been trying to pick and choose some places to get him in,” Perry said. “That was a a big play. He’s going to be a special player and we’re trying to work him in.”
This was Nixa’s first COC win at Joplin since Joplin joined the league in 2018 and it may be Nixa’s first win ever at Joplin. The schools previously hadn’t played each other going back as far as 2007, which is the first year MSHSAA’s web site documents seasons.
“I know this has been a tough place to win since I’ve been here,” Perry said. “This was a great game and we’re grateful to get the win.”