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Brock Blansit, Kael Combs have unbeaten Nixa Eagles soaring heading into Missouri Class 6 boys basketball playoffs

First-year head coach Blansit spent 19 years as Nixa assistant
Nixa senior Kael Combs

Nixa senior Kael Combs

By Scott Puryear | Photos by Nate Puryear

NIXA, Mo. – On most any practice day, visitors to the Nixa High School gym would walk in to find up-tempo music blaring and Eagle players occasionally dancing in between getting their shots up.

In general, a focused effort on keeping basketball fun.

"Most people would just shake their heads if they walked in and saw one of our practices," first-year Eagles head coach Brock Blansit says with a smile.

Wednesday’s post-practice even came with a surprise birthday party, complete with cake for the team and coaches, for Blansit’s 49th birthday courtesy of his wife Danelle.

But then again, most of this winter for the Nixa boys basketball team has pretty much been a celebration … with the Eagles determined to see if, in a few weeks, they can make it a coronation.

Nixa finished off the first unbeaten regular season (26-0) in the school’s illustrious boys basketball history on Thursday night with a 71-35 thrashing of Neosho, which also capped off a third straight unbeaten run through the vaunted Central Ozark Conference (and stretched the Eagles’ conference winning streak to 33 games).

All this after Nixa not only lost their Hall of Fame head coach, Jay Osborne, to retirement, but also four starters from last season’s Class 6 state runner-up which fell to Christian Brothers College in the title game.

After waiting 19 years for his chance to be a first-time head coach, and another four months into that first season … Blansit still hasn’t lost a game.

The city mayor race in Nixa this April currently features an unopposed candidate … who’d better hope Blansit - and the humble, “aw shucks” personality that makes him so likable - doesn’t toss his name into the ring.

“Just wait til we lose a game … that’ll change quick,” a laughing Blansit says of the community’s current love affair with the new Eagles boss.

“It’s fun when you’re winning. You have dreams about what a (first head coaching) season could look like, but I really don’t know how to explain it … it’s surely not me, I promise you that.”

Then again, maybe it is.

Nixa basketball coach Brock Blansit

Nixa basketball coach Brock Blansit

Since graduating from Springfield’s Hillcrest High in 1992, playing four years of basketball at Evangel University and working his way through assistant jobs at Strafford and Forsyth before landing in the seat next to Osborne at Nixa in 2004, Blansit has always had a little different take on how he wanted to coach his basketball team when the time eventually came.

“I told our athletic director (Nixa's Brandon Clark) before I got the job to expect two things … I promise we’ll have fun, and I promise we’ll be entertaining,” Blansit says. “And I think our kids have done a good job of both this year.

“You play sports to have fun. You didn’t start playing basketball when you were six years old because it was miserable … you played because it was a blast! And we, as coaches - including myself - sometimes get away from that and make it so serious all the time.”

The Eagles still laugh when they recall a tight game earlier this season when Blansit looked at all of them in a timeout huddle and asked “are you guys having fun?”

“We didn’t know what to say,” chuckled senior star point guard Kael Combs. “But now we almost expect him to ask us that.”

That approach is likely part of what made Blansit and Osborne (who came out of retirement this year to coach at Springfield Catholic) so compatible. If one had a weakness, it was the other one’s strength. It’s why Osborne, who’s won close to 700 games in his illustrious career, eventually grew comfortable in having Blansit as a quasi associate head coach, and his replacement in waiting when the time came. They just worked so well together.

If Osborne got hacked at a kid or the entire team, Blansit was there to come along right afterward and be the pat on the butt, “it’s all right” guy.

It's also why Blansit never left Nixa over the years to pursue another head coaching job, with several opportunities to do so.

“Nixa is just such a great place with great kids and a supportive administration," Blansit explained. "Jay let me coach, and he 100 percent trusted me. That’s why it was easy to stay all those years … I could do anything I wanted. My weaknesses were his strengths, and vice versa … it was a perfect combination.

“We were together for so long, our wives would joke that we’d be together all day, be together at practice and then we’d get home and be on the phone with each other for 30 minutes that night. And I probably talk to him more now on the phone than I did before.”

They have plenty to talk about now, for sure.

Nixa’s historic run leading into next week’s Class 6 District 5 tournament - where the top-seed Eagles will open play against a red-hot, No. 8 seed Ozark on its own floor - has been a bit of a surprise, even to the Eagles.

The scouting report throughout Southwest Missouri was that the Eagles had too much to replace after graduation losses. Blansit jokes that he got phone calls from teams he hadn’t heard from in years who suddenly wanted to get Nixa back on the schedule. Combs was the only returning starter, and a bunch of previously jayvee players would have to grow up and step up into key roles quickly if Nixa were to thrive again.

Well, they did. And they have.

“I think we all thought we’d have a good season, be a 20-win team and all that,” says Combs, “but I don’t think any of us expected to be 26-0.”

Blansit, and Nixa fans, can thank Combs for having a large hand in that.

The 6-foot-4 senior has emerged as the Ozarks’ top offensive threat with his averages of 23 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists this winter. That includes a 46-point game against New Madrid County in the semifinals of the Nixa Invitational, followed by a 66-64 championship game win over Troy the next day when he hit an off-balance jumper for a three-point play at the buzzer, part of a 26-point effort that brought the Eagles back from a one-time, 18-point deficit.

Combs surpassed the 1,500-point barrier for his career earlier this week in a win at Branson, becoming just the fourth Eagle ever to do so. Perhaps the key to his resurgence, which has led to a number of Division I basketball offers to start flowing in again, was a decision Blansit made when he took over the program last July, and installed Combs as his point guard.

“I knew it was something I would instantly be comfortable with,” said Combs, who previously had watched 2022 Nixa grad Colin Ruffin handle the point since before they were middle-school age, with Combs willingly taking on more of a combo-guard role to accommodate his older teammate and friend.

“A lot of people look at my scoring and my points, but what really gets me going is a great assist. This allows me to be able to create more for my teammates.”

Blansit felt the same way. He wants the ball in Combs’ hands as much as possible, not just for his ability to score and create his own shots, but because “he’s one of the best passers I’ve ever seen.”

The Eagles have averaged 72 points per game with their up-tempo attack, which usually finds Combs dropping in 3s, driving to the hoop with a quick first step, or dishing off when faced with double-teams to ready-to-fire shooters in seniors Carsten Seitz and Corey Kemp and juniors Garrett Hines, Josh Peters and Devon Kemp.

Senior starter Noah Engelman is essentially their indispensable blue collar guy, drawing charges, grabbing rebounds and cleaning up others misses with follow buckets of his own.

“We don’t run a lot of sets … we just have some rules like ‘get our shooters in their spots and let Kael make plays,’ “ Blansit says. “Their only other rule is ‘if you’re open, you’d better shoot it.’ “

This style clearly is working at other levels for the Eagles, too.

The current Nixa junior varsity squad finished 22-0 and averaged 73 points per game this season, with an eight-man roster that includes a Division I baseball commit (sophomore outfielder Wyatt Vincent) and a 6-foot-8, 280-pound freshman (Jackson Cantwell) who is regarded as the state’s top football prospect in the Class of ’26 as an offensive tackle ... and who, by the way, had a 40-point basketball game this season against Carl Junction.

The future looks bright for a Blansit-led Nixa basketball program that includes a freshman group that went 19-5 and seventh and eighth grade squads that both won COC tourney titles. That’s even after the upcoming graduation loss of Combs, who was a highly regarded football recruit as a wide receiver for the Eagles the past two years (but confirms that, when he makes an official college destination decision in April, it will be for basketball only).

For now, Blansit is concerned with the present - beginning on March 1, when the Eagles enter Class 6 District play at Ozark against the host Tigers, who are 12-14 on the year but have won eight of their last 10 games.

It’s a district field that includes powerhouses in No. 2 seed Kickapoo (18-7, with three of those losses in the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions) and No. 3 seed Republic (23-3), both having suffered narrow losses (by three and two points, respectively) at Nixa in early February, as well as strong 4-5 seeds in Joplin (16-9) and Springfield Central (15-9).

How deep is this district? Seventh-seed Carthage (14-11) lost by two (66-64) to visiting, unbeaten Nixa on Feb. 10.

“I’ve told our guys all season, let’s just enjoy this,” Blansit said. “We could replay this district four times and it could have four different winners. It’s going to be a crapshoot.’

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