On a cold gray day just begging for a story to be told, Ozark and Nixa wrote the latest, greatest chapter in their football rivalry.
Ozark dominated the first half while building a 21-0 lead, then hung on for dear life as Nixa staged a classic rally before the Tigers survived for a 28-21 win in the Class 5 District 5 championship game on Monday in Ozark.
Ozark will play at top-ranked Lee’s Summit West at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the quarterfinals.
The Tigers may have been looking to that game a little too soon, according to David Salazar.
“We just didn’t come out to play the second half. We thought we had it,” the Tigers’ quarterback said. “We do that next week, and we won’t even give ourselves a chance to be in the game.”
It was Salazar who made the game-saving play for the Tigers, returning a Nixa kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown after the Eagles (7-4) had scored to make it 21-14 with 8:31 left in the game.
The senior quarterback started up the middle, then made a cut to the Nixa sideline before outrunning Nixa’s coverage team to the end zone.
“We were down. Everyone knew it,” Salazar explained. “We needed a play, and that sparked us.”
It was just enough to move Ozark to 10-1.
Four plays after the kickoff return, Nixa quarterback Austin Schweiss found Tristan Ridenour for an 80-yard touchdown pass on third-and-11 for the third touchdown in a three-minute stretch.
After forcing an Ozark punt with 2:27 left, Nixa drove to its own 47-yard line before a sack and a fumbled option pitch pushed the Eagles back. A hook-and-lateral on fourth-and-16 came up three yards short.
Schweiss spearheaded Nixa’s comeback, throwing for 148 yards and running for 85 in the second half alone. The senior had a hand in all three Nixa touchdowns.
“The seniors didn’t want to go out on a bad note — and we were getting our butts kicked,” Schweiss said. “You never think you’re going to lose a game. You have to keep a positive mind. We did that, and eventually things started going our way.”
Nixa held Ozark to 43 yards and two first downs in the second half after the Tigers took advantage of three Eagle miscues in the first two quarters to build a three-touchdown lead.
Ozark’s first score came after the Tigers had to go just 34 yards after recovering a Nixa fumble. The Tigers went up 14-0 early in the second after recovering a Nixa fumble on the Eagles’ 10-yard line.
On Ozark’s final touchdown of the half, the Tigers’ drive was kept alive by a roughing the kicker penalty on Nixa as Ozark tried to punt.
“Games like this, with the magnitude that they are, it’s very important not to turn the ball over,” said Ozark coach Mark Bliss. “When we had to have big plays, we were fortunate enough to get them.”
Salazar was 5-for-5 passing for 48 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 21 yards for Ozark. Cody Lindsay added 15 carries for 73 yards and a score and Seth Wheeler added 46 rushing yards.
Schweiss went 7 of 8 through the air for 174 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 90 yards and a score on 18 carries.
“Our guys knew we had to go out one drive at a time and try to get back into it,” Nixa coach Rich Rehagen said. “And that’s what we did.”