The Neosho Wildcats made strides in Week 5 and had the unbeaten Nixa Eagles on the ropes Friday night, the Wildcats within range of their first win of the season with a 20-14 lead and 3 minutes, 45 seconds remaining on the clock.

The Wildcats have had trouble stopping opponents this season on fourth down and unfortunately, for the Wildcats, who played their guts out Friday night, Nixa came through with two big fourth down pass  plays, the first a 29-yard catch by Alex Allen on a fourth-and-13 at the Neosho 46 and the second a 4-yard touchdown pass from Jack Sanders to Sean Sample with 16 elusive seconds on the clock.

Jarvis Funk made a long return into Nixa territory, but Nixa’s Oswaldo Garcia sacked Neosho quarterback Gavin Kelley and time ran out on the Wildcats for a 21-20 defeat at historic Bob Anderson Stadium.

Neosho, 0-5 on the season both overall and Central Ozark Conference Large, returns to the road next week to face Republic, a team coached by former Neosho head coach Dustin Baldwin.

Republic took a 14-7 loss Friday night to Ozark and enters Week 5 1-4 overall and 0-4 COC Large. One team will earn its first conference win.

Friday night Nixa and Neosho continued their run of epic games, one that started in 2015 at Bob Anderson when Neosho upended a state-ranked Nixa squad on the Wildcats’ Homecoming. The Eagles have won the last three meetings, including two last season at Eagle Stadium.

“A lot of things happened down the stretch,” Neosho head coach Leon Miller said. “We had some chances to make some plays and get them stopped and get the ball back and run out the clock, but it didn’t happen. Our kids fought hard and they played hard.

“This is a tough, resilient bunch of kids and they’ve come at it with a workmanlike attitude, wanting to get better every week and we are. I think we’ve improved. That’s a 4-0 team coming in here tonight and they escaped with a victory. Again, it comes down to a couple plays here and there. If you make those, we win, but that’s no faulting the kids. They’re trying to make those plays.”

Neosho made a lot of plays Friday night. For example, the play that gave the Wildcats their 20-14 lead. Oh, what a play it was.

Nixa sophomore kicker Andrew Anello had a 29-yard field goal attempt lined up, after the Wildcats stopped the Eagles on their subsequent drive after Neosho earned a 14-all score early in the fourth.

Cade Lyerla blocked Anello’s kick and then both teams had totally opposite reactions as the ball came down and settled at the Neosho 9.

Nixa acted casual — like the Eagles forgot it was a live ball — while Adrian Hitchcock led the pursuit of the ball, picked it up, and followed his convoy of blockers (including Quincey Willis, Donnie Fox, Gage Kelley, and Jarvis Funk) down the Neosho sideline for a 91-yard touchdown that created pandemonium in the stands and had the Neosho coaching staff jumping as high in the air as they ever have their entire lives.

The Wildcats earned their tie score on a pair of gritty Funk runs, first a 6-yard touchdown and then a conversion run. Lyerla gained 39 of his 88 yards rushing on the drive and kept the chains moving with a trio of first downs. Funk and Kelley each had first downs on the drive, as well.

Early in the second half, Nixa built on its 7-6 halftime lead with a 44-yard Sean Sample run, by far Sample’s longest gain of the night after being gang-tackled all night by the tenacious Wildcats.

For the second week in a row, the Wildcats came out their opening drive with a touchdown and took a 6-0 lead on a Kelley 41-yard touchdown run. Kelley scored the touchdown the previous week against Carl Junction at Bob Anderson.

Nixa took a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter on a Sample 5-yard run. Sample accounted for all three Nixa scores.

The Wildcats still have a long road ahead, road which defines their season more than the first five weeks of the season.

“We’ll go back and watch the film,” Miller said. “We’ll correct the mistakes and continue to drill the things we’ve been drilling since Day One and just continue to get better at those things. I told them that I was proud of them. It was a great effort. We did some great things … Nixa did too. They did some good things too. It came down to a play two here or there.

“I thought our defense played well, for the most part. Again, a couple plays, but overall, I think we played really, really well against the run and forced Nixa to go into the passing game. They made a few plays when they had to, but I thought overall we played really well.

“It’s all there in front of us. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve been there before in situations similar to this, so I still believe in them. Our coaches believe in them. They still believe in each other and they still want to get better. You know, I’m not going to panic, I’m not going to throw in the towel, and I know they’re not. We’re going to keep coming back.”