Hard to believe now, but it was actually only three years ago that many of Jaden Aven’s Nixa teammates and some Lady Eagles athletes were looking down at him and his max in the squat.
It was incredibly 33 years ago Nixa started a non-conference series with Webb City on the gridiron that turned into an annual COC matchup and eventually became a 20-game streak of success for the burgeoning Cardinals.
All in the past.
Aven’s rapidly-rising growth chart in the weight room helped push the Eagles past Webb City on the COC charts for what had been an ever-so elusive 41-27 triumph over the Cardinals on Friday.
Aven’s strength was on full display as he was a man amongst boys whenever an outmatched Cardinals defensive back tried to bring him to the turf. He rushed for 101 yards and three touchdowns as a newly-converted running back and collected seven tackles from his linebacker post.
Aven’s lower body wasn’t always so strong.
“My freshman year, the first time I squatted I failed with 45s on the bar,” Aven said, referring to 45-pound barbells and 135 pounds overall. “I was working out with (fellow linebacker) Tony Perez and he was already strong in his legs then. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try (135).’ I got it off the rack, went down and tried to go back up, but fell down.’
“I remember that and keep driving myself,” he added. “I definitely have worked my way up and have earned it.”
Nixa (6-1) never trailed while earning everything it got against Webb City (4-3). The Eagles beat the Cardinals with a combination of finesse and power.
Aven and his defensive cohorts, John Gholson and Avry Rutherford, were part of a new power-I formation in the Eagles’ spread offense that ate up yards and the clock in the second half.
Nixa garnered 267 yards rushing. Aven had two touchdown runs of four yards and a 27-yard touchdown run. Along the way, he fought off would-be tacklers with relentless desire.
“I got behind our linemen, read their blocks, got to the hole and tried to run like (Seattle Seahawks running back) Marshawn Lynch and not go down,” Aven said. “I had the mentality that no one was going to bring me down. No matter what, I was going to keep running. It’s all about working on power. The coaches set up a good off-season for us to get strong. My most proud max is 350 pounds on the bench and 500 in the dead-lift. My squat is 445. The last time I did hand-clean I got 275.
“We got their offense off the field and took their pride away from them,” he added.
“It was unstoppable,” Gholson said of the power-I. “We got yards on every play, at least three I think. It was perfect, just what we needed.”
Nixa coach John Perry has had Aven add to his linebacking duties by using him on special teams and as a halfback option hero throughout the season. This was the first night he repeatedly called Aven’s number on running plays while also inserting Gholson and Rutherford in the backfield with him.
“Tonight, instead of having those guys go home with some energy-level left, we decided we were going to throw them out there and let them get some snaps (on offense),” Perry said. “We wanted to see if (Webb City) could stop it. They didn’t stop it tonight. Jaden was absolutely phenomenal and John, Avry and the offensive line did an outstanding job.”
“I love that formation. We can run it down (opponents’) throats,” offensive tackle Sam Brower said.
Nixa’s offensive linemen overwhelmed the Cardinals’ defensive linemen while winning the line of scrimmage. Running back Spencer Ward ran for 157 yards and the Eagles averaged 6.4 yards a rush.
“Normally, you don’t do that,” Perry said of winning the line of scrimmage against Webb City. “Tonight, we were bigger. We outweighed them on average by about 75 pounds (among linemen). That helped a little bit obviously.”
Nixa’s offensive linemen were equally effective pass-blocking, allowing quarterback Connor Knatcal to complete 12-of-18 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
Knatcal bounced back in a big way, after being guilty of three interceptions a week ago versus Ozark.
“I didn’t have the greatest game last week,” Knatcal said. “Everyone has off nights. I don’t know what it was, if it was form or something else. You’ve got to move on. There’s no point in sitting there thinking about it. That will just hurt you worse. Tonight, I wanted to come out and compete. I felt good all night.”
“I never doubted that he would,” Perry said of Knatcal rebounding so well. “That’s the type of kid he is. He’ll bounce back when bad things happen when he’s 43 years old, too.”
Knatcal had scoring strikes of eight and 13 yards to Kael Combs in the first half to help give the Eagles a 14-12 lead at intermission.
With Nixa protecting a 28-20 lead a couple minutes into the fourth quarter, Knatcal fired a 59-yard touchdown bomb to Jordyn Turner.
That score was followed up by a fumble recovery by Rutherford. With the Eagles clinging to a 34-27 advantage and 2:08 remaining, Webb City reached the Nixa 44-yard line. But a botched handoff by the Cardinals led to Rutherford pouncing on the loose pigskin.
“The ball went down and I dove for the it. It looked like gold to me,” Rutherford said. “I was just going to give the ball to the ref, but everyone was making such a big deal about it that I held the ball up to show the crowd. I was walking on air and over the moon. It was amazing.”
Rutherford moved to Nixa from South Dakota when he was in the seventh grade and soon after became aware of Webb City’s stranglehold of the Eagles.
“I heard how we had never beaten them. I was surprised. I never thought a team could lose for that many years against one opponent,” Rutherford said. “We’ve been working hard for this and knew this was going to happen.”
Aven first heard about Webb City’s tradition when he was in the sixth grade at Willard.
“I was going to the football game and everyone was saying, ‘We’re playing Webb City tonight, we’re definitely not going to win,’” Aven said. “I didn’t know who Webb City was. I went to the game and saw them play and saw they were a hard-playing team.”
Likewise, Perry was told all about Webb City upon his arrival from Pearl, Mississippi, two years ago. One of the first things he did after taking the Eagles job was arranging for a visit with Cardinals coach John Roderique to talk COC football.
“We started trying to compete with them 24 months ago,” Perry said. “Our kids believed they could do this and played their hearts out. I’m so proud of the way they played. Sometimes, you can’t determine the outcome of a game. But what you can determine is how hard you are going to play and the attitude you are going to play with. No matter how this game would have turned out, I would have said I was super proud to be a coach of this team because of the attitude they have.”
The 2021 Eagles will forever savor this night.
“I was seven years old when I first heard about Webb City football,” Brower said. “I thought they were gods, basically. We made history against them tonight, it’s amazing.”
“We’ve put our names in the history books,” Knatcal said. “We’re the first to do it and we’ll be able to say that forever. No one can take that away from us.”
Nixa 41, Webb City 27
Webb City 0 12 8 7 - 27
Nixa 7 7 14 13 - 41
N - Combs 8 pass from Knatcal (James kick)
WC - Jackson 2 run (kick blocked)
N - Combs 13 pass from Knatcal (James kick)
WC - Washington 17 pass from Johnson (run failed)
N - Aven 27 run (James kick)
N - Aven 4 run (James kick)
WC - Jackson 6 run (Washington run)
N - Turner 59 pass from Knatcal (kick blocked)
WC - Wilson 10 run (Crouch kick)
N - Aven 4 run (James kick)