Nixa has high hopes going into Tournament of Champions

Nixa has high hopes going into Tournament of Champions

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Nixa has high hopes going into Tournament of Champions

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A couple of weeks ago, Roy Green walked into the Kickapoo High School gym and saw the 2005 Bass Pro Tournament of Champions banner hanging near several of the others he won in 26 years as coach of the Chiefs.

“I looked at our championship banner,” Green said this week, ” saw that one and said, ‘That’s hard to do.’ “

Nixa and Hillcrest have a chance this weekend to join what has turned out to be an elite fraternity in which only two local schools — Green’s Kickapoo team of 2005 and the 1994 Glendale Falcons, coached by Mike Keltner — have won the T of C.

The 29th annual T of C tips off today, and Nixa in particular appears equipped to make a run. The Eagles feature a pair of NCAA Division I recruits in Austin Ruder and Jalen Norman, and are ranked No. 1 in Class 5.

First up for the Eagles is an 8 p.m. matchup against Bullitt East (Ky.), then they could face a powerhouse in the second round: Montverde Academy of Orlando, Fla., a team ranked No. 1 by ESPN and No. 2 by USA TODAY.

“Brock was telling me the other day, our program and our players have played in a lot of big games over the last few years. This isn’t going to be any different,” Nixa coach Jay Osborne said, referring to assistant coach Brock Blansit. “I don’t think our kids are going to be nervous or anything. I think they’re looking forward to it.”

The Eagles played in the semifinals of the 2011 T of C, beating La Verne Lutheran of California 60-59 in the opening round. In that game, Nixa did what Keltner said any local team hoping to win the tournament has to do.

“You can’t let the other team turn you over because the teams coming in are going to be athletic,” Keltner said. “In ’94, we had Stu Stenger, Brad Feuerbacher and Brian Grow, Kenny Price and no one could turn us over.

“Stu was the primary handler, but we got every shot we wanted,” Keltner added. “And we happened to shoot the ball very well those three days. When you aren’t losing any possessions, and you’re making shots, then you got a chance.”

Nixa committed only seven turnovers against La Verne Lutheran, and shot 51 percent from the floor. Ruder was a sophomore starter on that Nixa team, scoring 17 points in the first-round win.

“I feel really good about (this year). I think that we’re pretty prepared for it,” Ruder said. “We know what it’s all about and the atmosphere is great, so we’re just excited to get back there.”

The Eagles likely won’t have the size to match opposing teams from out of town, but, Nixa can still put the 6-foot-5 Norman, 6-6 Jacob Ruder, 6-4 Wes Middleton and 6-4 Bryce Dulin on the floor.

“I think you’ve got to have a big man,” Green said. “Even if your big man doesn’t score, he can counteract the other person’s big man.”

That was the case for Green’s Chiefs in the semifinal, upsetting Poplar Bluff and senior Tyler Hansbrough by fronting him with a point guard in a 1-3-1 defense and then backing him up with sophomore post player Alex Bernskoetter.

“He took quite a beating from Hansbrough, but he defended quite well; he had only one field goal in the second half,” Green said. “We played some junk zones. With personnel from around Missouri, you just can’t go one-on-one defensively.”

Green’s Chiefs topped Memphis White Station in the first round after trailing by more than a dozen points in the second half. The Chiefs also trailed Hansbrough, now with the Indiana Pacers, in the second half of the semifinal.

“I remember in the locker room after the Hansbrough win, our point guard, Michael Vogt, looked around and said, ‘What in the world have we just done?’ ” Green recalled. “You’ve got to reach down your hat and pull out a rabbit.”

Of course, you also needed to score, and 2005 tournament MVP Shane Laurie helped provide that. He scored 63 points, including a 28-point output against Poplar Bluff in the semifinal.

Nixa certainly can score against local teams. The Eagles are averaging more than 71 points a game and have been held below 60 just once. Austin Ruder averages 20 points a game. Norman and Jacob Ruder both average around 13.

While Nixa is the premier program in southwest Missouri, they’ll fly under the radar when compared to the teams coming into this year’s T of C with national reputations.

“You know last year, it’s funny. We’re playing in the state semifinals and the Marquette section — I don’t know how many hundreds of people they had in that student section — but they started yelling some chant about a tractor. I don’t know even if any of our guys, they don’t know what tractors are. They’ve never seen a John Deere 1040 or whatever,” Osborne said.

“I think it’s kind of funny that across the state people look at us as being country hicks. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.

“I’m sure these teams coming in, they don’t know anything about Nixa. They don’t know who Nixa is, and they could probably care less. Which is good.”

Bass Pro Tournament of Champions

* When: Today through Saturday
* Where: JQH Arena, Missouri State University
* TV: CBS Sports Network will carry the semifinals and finals live
* Tickets: Reserved seats on the lower level are $36 for the weekend. Single-night reserved seats are $12. General-admission seats are $30 for the weekend, $10 a day. Students are $21 for the event, or $7 a day. Call 836-7678 or 476-7849.

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