It didn’t seem possible, given the plentiful pre-season publicity Spencer Ward received, but his hype train gained even more steam Friday.
Meanwhile, the fanfare surrounding Ward’s unheralded defensive cohorts, got started with an attention-getting performance few some coming.
Nixa’s defense shut out Webb City over the final three quarters to lead the way for the Eagles in their 14-7 Week One victory.
Ward’s tireless film work on the Cardinals carried over to an epic performance in which his tackles total easily reached double digits. It was no coincidence the senior safety repeatedly met Webb City’s ball-carriers just past the line of scrimmage.
"I watched so much film this week, probably six hours-plus of film just on Webb. That’s not counting last week,” Ward said. “I felt so prepapred. I was reading my keys. Against a team like that running the ball like they did, heavy (emphasis) on the keys. Seeing the tight end either block out or pull in, that determined what I was going to do.”
“He probably does know what they’re running most of the time because of what they are lined up in. Spencer is going to put in his work and do his part to give us the opportunity to win,” coach John Perry said, “He looks like he’s on a different level. He is so fast, so good and so smart. It makes it easy for us because he’s always going to make the play. If they get past the other 10 players, Spencer is going to get them.”
In contrast, no one could get to Ward on his 66-yard touchdown sprint to open the scoring. With running back Dylan Rebura out with a sprained ankle, Ward started in his place and finished with 10 carries for 95 yards.
Ward was also on Nixa’s kickoff coverage as a return man.
He wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Football is my life and I’m so happy when I’m playing,” Ward said. “It’s my whole purpose.”
Ward’s workload during the hot night admittedly wore him down, but didn’t get the best of him.
“I was tired, but I’m going to stay in as long as I can,” he said.
The only thing stopped Ward, briefly, was cramps in both of his calves that flared up in the middle of the third quarter.
“It felt like being squeezed,” Ward said of the pain. “It’s always tough cramping because once they start, it’s hard for them to go away. But I can stick though it once I get used to it.”
The assortment of newcomers to Nixa’s defense also acclimated themselves accordingly.
Even with Webb City returning a wealth of talent in its backfield and along its offensive line from last season, the Cardinals couldn’t solve the Eagles’ defense. Webb City averaged 6.9 yards a run against Nixa last season, but the Eagles’ norm Friday was 3.8 yards, as they netted 204 yards on 54 rushes.
Omari Jackson ran for 162 yards last year against Nixa. He had just 24 this time around.
All this from a Nixa defense with just three returning starters. Newcomers the likes of cornerback Parker Mann, linebackers Eli Frazier and Anthony Ramey and linemen Michael Henegar, Aiden Sigman and Peyton Covel shined, as did veteran defensive end Jayden Antontelli.
“There are a lot of new guys over there all around,” Perry said of his defense. “They were outstanding. They saved our butts tonight, obviously. They played really hard and the coaches did a fantastic job getting them ready to play. (Webb City) piled up some yardage, but it was between the 20s. We got stops when they got close. Our guys got stops when they had to get stops.”
“I’ve been saying this whole time, we’ll be one of the best defenses that has come through Nixa,” Ward said. “I’m so proud of this defense. We play like we’re brothers. We trust in each other. And, we’re so athletic. That’s one thing that will show even more as the season goes along.”
Webb City’s comeback bid saw the Cardinals put together a 14-play, 42-yard drive that stalled at the Nixa 16-yard line in the third quarter and a 14-play, 46-yard drive that stalled at the Eagles 13-yard line with 2:02 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Webb City never punted, while having possessions end due to a pair of failed fourth-down conversions, two missed field goals and a fumble.
Mann turned in a tackle on fourth down to end one of Webb City’s drives.
“I know I’m not supposed to look at things like ‘Players To Watch,’ but I’m on social media all the time,” Mann said. “I saw my name wasn’t on (a list). That fueled me. This season is going to be the season people know who Parker Mann is.”
Nixa’s offense was shut out in the second half, as the Eagles employed a backfield by committee. But the offense had its moments.
Malachi Rider ran for 118 yards on six carries in his Nixa debut
“Malachi moved here from Kentucky. That was a blessing from the good Lord,” Perry said. “We’re glad to have him. He was really good tonight.”
Quarterback Drew Blevins threw what turned out to be a game-winning touchdown by lofting a 31-yard touchdown pass to wideout Rylan Michel in the second quarter.
“(Webb City’s defensive backs) bit really hard coming down, so Rylan was wide open and I passed over the safety,” Blevins said. “Before the pass, I was thinking, ‘Don’t throw it as hard as you can, put a little touch on it, get the ball to our playmakers and everything else will take care of itself.’”
It was Blevins’ first varsity touchdown.
“That was a special feeling I’ll never forget,” he said. “I was smiling from ear to ear.”
Earlier in the drive, Blevins also impressed with his patience and the touch he had on a 10-yard pass in traffic during a wheel-route to Michel on 3rd-and-10 near midfield.
“We knew he was going to be the one open because of the coverage they ran. Wyatt (Vincent) had the deep route and drew the corner, so Rylan came in and replaced that spot and was open. I looked deep first, but once I saw the corner chase Wyatt, I had the idea in the back of my mind that I was going to Rylan. (The pass) barely fit in there.”
Once untouchable Webb City suddeny is only 12-7 in its last 19 COC games dating back to 2021 and that doesn’t include a District defeat at the hands of Republic last year.
Nixa owns three straight wins aganst the Cards.
Nixa has won its season-opener in each of Perry’s four seasons with the Eagles.
“This is a great start to a great season,” Mann said.
Nixa 14, Webb City 7
Score By Quarters
Webb City 7 0 0 0 — 7
Nixa 6 8 0 0 — 14
N — Spencer Ward 66 run (kick no good)
WC — Breckin Galardo 7 run (Alex Dunne kick)
N — Rylan Michel 31 pass from Blevins (Ward run)
First Downs — 15; Rushes/Yds. — 54-204; Passing Yds. — 59; Passes (Comp.-Att.) — 5-7; Totals Offensive Yds. — 263; Punts — 0-0; Fumbles-Lost — 1-1; Interceptions — 0; Penalties — 4-27; Possession Time — 31:55\
First Downs — 11; Rushes/Yds. — 24-225; Passing Yds. — 66; Passes (Comp.-Att.) — 5-9; Total Offensive Yds. — 301; Punts — 3-17.0; Fumbles-Lost — 2-0; Interceptions — 0; Penalties — 5-45; Possession Time — 16:05
Webb City (att.-yds) — Gabe Johnson 20-75, Breckin Galardo 19-73, Omari Jackson 7-24, Andrew Elwell 3-14
Nixa — Malachi Rider 6-118, Spencer Ward 10-95, Ryan Scholl 2-7, Ryan Risinger 1-6
Webb City (comp-att.-yds) — Braden McKee 3-5-38, Gabe Johnson 2-2-21
Nixa — Drew Blevins 2-3-41, Nate Uber 3-6-25
Webb City (rec.-yds) — Joseph DeGraffenried 2-38, Drew Vonder Haar 2-12, Gabe Johnson 1-9
Nixa — Rylan Michel 2-41, Keivon Font 1-12, Spencer Ward 2-13