Physically, Ozark forward Alex Williams has been mature beyond his years for quite some time. Mentally, his maturity level has increased this year as much as any part of his game, leading to his breakout junior season.
Williams is now a wise veteran and won’t let opponents rattle him and throw him off his game.
With Kickapoo applying physical tactics seemingly aimed specifically at him, Williams responded with a game-winning goal in Ozark’s 2-1 Class 4 District 5 semifinal triumph Thursday.
Williams was in control of his emotions, save for a temporary lapse.
“When it was 1-0 (Kickapoo), I felt like I was trying to speed up the game and get one back,” Williams said. “I felt pressured because we are the No. 1 seed. But I was able to keep my head when they were shoving me, get back in position and help my team.
"In this game, losing your composure can lose you the entire game,” he added. “Losing your composure can affect your whole team's mentality. You have to have a strong mindset.”
Even at 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds, Williams has repeatedly been the target of pushing and holding by opposing defenders.
He’s learned to accept it as part of the nature of the game and his position.
“Being one of the biggest people out there and playing up top, it happens a lot,” Williams said “I’ve gotten frustrated with it because there have been times I don't understand how to deal with what they're doing. At the end of the day, though, I figure out what kind of game plan I can use to get back in position.”
“(Opponents) are going to have to bring it when they go against him,” Tigers coach Zack Owens said. “He expects it and is ready for it. We've seen it multiple times. He's a big boy, he can handle it. We’ve seen kids go up strong against him and they end up being the ones that fall down trying to earn a foul when he has barely moved.”
Williams jumped above everyone else to receive a pass from Phin Scott in the penalty box and score on a header for a 2-1 Ozark lead.
The execution at both ends of the goal was flawless.
“That header was electrifying,” Williams said. “After we got the first goal, we were hungry to get another one.”
Williams learned long ago using his head to receive a pass is one of the best ways to take advantage of his size.
“Being one of the biggest targets out there, I had no choice but to learn to put my head on a ball that comes into the box,” he said. “I had to learn how to keep the ball under control as I'm using my head.”
Lepant's school record now at 36 goals
Ozark’s first goal was supplied by midfielder/forward Caleb Lepant. It upped the Tigers’ single-season goals record to 36.
Wyatt Trobaugh had the assist, putting the ball out in front of Lepant as he raced toward the goal.
“My teammates have a way of knowing where I'm going to be,” Lepant said. “I’m blessed to have them. A lot of my goals I don't create myself. My teammates are putting the ball there for me. It's a combination of me being in the right spot and my teammates knowing where to put the ball.”
It marked the third straight match Lepant has netted Ozark’s first goal.
“He's going to continue going until someone stops him,” Owens said. “It’s nice to have someone who is so dynamic. He's not one-dimensional. We've had one-dimensional attackers the last few years. They were great players. But he's more dangerous because he's not move and shake with the ball, without the ball and make defenders lose sight of him.”
Teams' rematch more contested than first meeting
Kickapoo lost 6-0 to Ozark when the teams met in the regular season. But the Chiefs took a 1-0 lead in the first five minutes this time around.
It took the Tigers 25 minutes to get on the board.
“It took more time than I expected,” Lepant said. “It took us a while to find our groove. I don't think we were entirely ready. Once we got settled in, though, it was chance after chance. We put away the two we needed to put away. We could have put away more.
"We did a good job of fighting and not getting frustrated with ourselves,” he added. “Once you get frustrated, it builds. The biggest thing is to stay composed.”
Owens wasn’t expecting another 6-0 win.
“That might have been the best game we've played. To think we could completely duplicate that wasn't realistic,” Owens said. “We didn't play well the first 20 minutes tonight. You can't afford to have 20 minutes go by and you play terrible soccer. That's what happened.
“They were a little more fierce in the midfield than we were,” he added. “They were all over us. They weren't giving us any time in space. We were trying to hold onto the ball a little too long, rather than trying to connect passes. They were closing us down quickly and wrecking havoc on us. We had to made adjustments for that and we did. We had to get the ball off of our foot quicker and move into open spaces faster.”
'Keeper Sandgren shines down the stretch
Over the final 10 minutes, Kickapoo put together two shots on goal that forced Ozark ‘keeper Carson Sandgren to make winning saves.
“The last 10 minutes, especially when we're only up by one, that's the biggest part of the game,” Sandgren said. “Our opponent is going to get really aggressive and try to find any shot they can. I've got to be aware at all times or else an unexpected shot or deflection might get past me. I know I've got to be awake and focused in those moments.”
A sophomore, Sandgren responded well to his first taste of post-season pressure.
“At first, you're kind of nervous, especially with all these seniors around me,” Sandgren said. “This isn't my District per se. If I make a mistake and we lose because of it, that's their last game. So, there’s pressure I feel to absolutely play my best. I have to focus on these games more than any time during the season.
"Once I got settled in tonight, I felt more confident and took the game under my control," he added.
Ozark (23-2-2) advances to meet Nixa (16-8) in the District final at 5 p.m Monday.