Sports Editor Pat Dailey engaged in a Q’s and A’s session with Nixa coach John Perry to reflect on the Eagles’ 2023 season and look ahead to 2024:
Q: Following your team’s Quarterfinal loss at Rockhurst, how do you handle the finality of it all?
Perry: Man, it’s hard. It’s strange. It’s kind of like a death. You do something over and over and over and you grow very close to the group of players. Then, you wake up the next day and it’s over.
It’s tough. As the person ultimately responsible for the program, you have this bit of a guilty feeling about what we could have done to have a different outcome.
I’ve always said it’s like having the flu for a week. It will take me until Christmas, honestly, to move on. It’s a challenge.
I love watching college football. I’ll definitely do that.
Q: Looking at the loss to Rockhurst, is there anything that stands out that you wish your team could have done differently?
Perry: The regret is maybe we didn’t play our best game at the best time. When you play Rockhurst in the fourth round of the playoffs, you need to be playing your best game. We didn’t play our best game.
We didn’t have our best week of practices. Monday was not super. The rest of the week was great. We needed to be at our best when our best was needed.
Q: After that loss, what are some of your messages to your players?
Perry: You walk away and ask yourself the question, ‘What did we do well and what do we need to improve on to get back to that situation?' Once you adapt a win or learn mentality, then even when things don’t go your way, you can learn from it and be better next year.
I think we’ve gotten better in every way. But we’ve still got to get better. There are things we need to improve on.
Q: Your players were praised by Rockhurst personnel and football fans in general following the Quarterfinal game for their sportsmanship and the respect they showed the Hawklets with their post-game comments. How does that make you feel?
Perry: They’re great kids. The one thing we try to teach them is competitors respect competitors. You should thank competitors for the opportunity to play because they bring out the best in you.
After a loss when your players are respectful and complimentary of the other team, it makes you feel good.
At halftime of the Rockhurst game, I told the players, ‘Let’s forget the score and for the second half let’s be the best of us and compete as hard as we can and encourage to the best of our abilities.'
Q: You’ve had Steven or Spencer Ward on your roster each of your four years at Nixa and they established themselves among the program’s all-time greats. What have been your impressions of the Wards?
Perry: Steven was here the first year I got here and we moved Spencer up at the end of his freshman year. It will be strange not having a Ward on our team. They’ve been fantastic for us, the kids and their parents.
Q: It appeared for a short while the COC might be trimmed to eight teams next year. That would have allowed for two non-conference dates. Alas, the league welcomed enough Ozark Conference members to fill up football schedules. Would you have liked a couple non-conference dates to beef up your schedule?
Perry: That was the wish of our people and that’s what I wanted. We wanted to pick up some really good competition, whether it was somebody out of Kansas City, St. Louis, Arkansas or Oklahoma.
But it didn’t work out that way. It wasn’t what was best for the conference. At the end of the day, I’m okay with that. With the teams we added (to the COC) and the teams we lost, our schedule next year got tougher than what it was this year.
I do feel like one thing that hurt us down the stretch (this year) was the competition. You take the last several weeks, the teams we were playing were the ones definitely playing better competition that night. That showed up.
Rockhurst benefitted from their schedule. They played a lot of close games. We didn’t have a lot of close games. There is a different mindset for a football team when you are constantly in a battle week after a week.
Q: Your first six games next year will be against Republic, Webb City, Joplin, Carthage, Lebanon and Kickapoo. All six had winning records this year. What was you reaction upon seeing that stretch of games?
Perry: Whoever put that together was thinking about giving us a bit of a challenge.
Q: Your annual awards banquet is approaching. Do you like that evening?
Perry: Yes and no. I’m not a huge awards banquet person. I feel like football is the greatest team sport there is, so I hate to give individual awards. Also, I’m trying to move on to 2024, but we have to go back and re-live 2023. Team awards are things I would be more aligned with. But banquets are a positive opportunity to celebrate our seniors. I like being able to honor our seniors for what they have done for us.
Q: How is your relationship with your players’ parents?
Perry: We try to communicate a lot. I try to send out e-mails to them as frequently as I can. I have an open-door policy. They can come in and talk anytime, if they have a question or if there is anything they want to know. They want to support our program. Our parents are unique. Other places I have been at or places where I have friends at, sometimes if a parent gives something, they want something in return. Our parents are greatly involved, but not to the point in which they cross over the line. They’re fantastic.
Q: Nixa is ahead of the game in comparison to most SWMO programs by having a director of football operations. How do you like working with your director of operations, Dustin Martin?
Perry: I don’t know what his supplement is, but they could probably tell me whatever his supplement is and I would say he earns it.
I told somebody the other day, ‘If I would ever leave and take another coaching job, I’m taking Dustin Martin with me.’ He makes life as a coach so much better. There are so many things he does that clean my plate, so I can coach football. He’s very meticulous about doing the job and doing it right. He takes care of his business. He’s a great asset to our program.
I don’t know how many (high school programs) have a director of ops, but there may not be one as good as him.
Q: What is your working relationship like with your fellow Nixa coaches?
Perry: Our coaches at Nixa support each other. They’re not selfish. They don’t try to to talk their guys into not playing other sports. They want the kids involved in other programs and to play multiple sports. That’s where you end up having depth.
Q: Attendance at Nixa home games this season was at an all-time high. What did you think of the Eagles’ fan support?
Perry: Fantastic. That’s something that has gotten better every single year. A trademark of our community is people want to come out and support Nixa. You go to a basketball game or a baseball game and it’s packed out, too. Our community wants our programs to be successful and wants to support our programs. It’s a pretty good feeling to know you have the support of your community.
It makes me feel good about our program, how Friday night home games have turned into an event. We try to make it an experience, with fireworks after the games. Hopefully, the fans enjoy seeing our team. We’re trying to compete at the highest level.
Q: What do you think of your quarterback picture for next year and who figures to be the starting QB?
Perry: I know (sophomore) Maddox Gibson and (freshman) Adam McKnight will compete for the job. There was a time in which I would have told you Adam McKnight was going to be our starting quarterback next year. But Maddox was the quarterback for the jayvee and threw exceptionally well. They’re both really good.
Competition makes people better, the more competition that we make at more positions on the field, the better we’re going to be.
Q: Your MVP this year arguably was your offensive line. Sophomore left tackle Jackson Cantwell is optimistic the O-line will be even better next year. Do you share his optimism?
Perry: I agree with him that they’re going to be better next year. We have three guys coming back who are going to be substantially better than they are now. You add a couple guys to the equation and I think we have the capability to be really good.
Q: What are your initial thoughts on the 2024 Eagles?
Perry: I went through our depth chart the other day because I was curious. I looked and saw that we will have seven starters back on both sides of the ball. A lot of the teams we played had ton of seniors. Rockhurst was almost all seniors. We’ll have a chance to be really good. You add a ninth-grade team that has never been beaten and we’ll have the opportunity to be better next year.
Perry: Nixa was undefeated in regular-season play at the varsity, jayvee and freshman levels this fall. Within the COC, who do you think will provide the strongest competition for the Eagles next year?
Perry: Republic is always there. They’ve gotten better and better. They were our stiffest competition on the ninth-grade and jayvee levels, as well. Webb City is going to be a lot better. We’re seeing that now, how they’ve gotten better as this year has went on.