Yes, the Norwalk junior loves the physicality of the sport — but it wasn’t what directly got him involved.
“To be honest, the reason I started wrestling was to make me a better football player,” the two-way Norwalk football linemen said. “Guys like Alec (Maloney) and Ethan (Hernandez) are some of my best friends, but I did it for football first.”
Phillips along senior Tche Leroux and junior Trey Leroux have played a huge role in the Truckers (9-3) advancing to Friday’s Division III regional championship game vs. SBC Lake Division foe Sandusky (8-4) at Bellevue.
Norwalk faced off against the pass-heavy spread offense of Rocky River last week. With just those three rushing the quarterback, along with the well-timed blitzes from linebackers such as Maloney, Hernandez and Josh Neuberger — the Truckers finished with nine sacks and over a dozen more QB hurries in the 56-7 win.
But there isn’t much secret as to why a good number of Norwalk defenders usually don’t miss on tackles. Phillips, Maloney and Hernandez were state qualifiers in wrestling last winter for the Truckers.
At Monroeville last year, Trey Leroux also reached state in Div. III, while Tche Leroux won 34 matches for the Eagles.
“We try and double-leg everyone as much as we can pretty much,” Tche Leroux said of the wrestling mentality. “Every single practice, we’ll be going up against each other and someone will bring up how it will transition to wrestling, and just how we’re missing practice right now — but are still working on it.”
Added Trey Leroux, “The wrestlers have a little bit more meaner mentality and aren’t afraid to get dirty to make a tackle — or get off a block or just do what they have to do.”
All told, the Truckers have 44 sacks in 12 games (3.6 per game) from 10 different players. They also have 24 interceptions (2.0 per game).
“The secondary has played well, which puts pressure on offenses to also worry about that,” Norwalk coach Todd Fox said. “But our line is pressuring really well, and our linebacker group — those guys are just there and fly to the ball.
“I hate to single out one group, but that defensive line has improved every week,” he added. “We go seven or eight kids deep, but we have a few standing out who are relentless in pursuit to the football.”
Tche Leroux leads the charge with 85 tackles, 15 sacks and three fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown.
Phillips adds 27 tackles and four sacks, while Trey Leroux has 25 tackles and two sacks. From the linebacker position, Josh Neuberger adds 111 tackles and seven sacks, followed by Maloney (105 tackles, 6 sacks) and Hernandez (79 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery).
“You have to be able to hit low,” Phillips said. “A form tackle is a double-leg takedown. That’s what it is. So the two sports interact and overlap a lot.”
Slowing the Streaks
Norwalk entered its Oct. 5 game at Sandusky riding a streak of 14 scoreless quarters with three straight shutouts.
But led by standout running back Terion Stewart (211 yards, 4 TDs), the Blue Streaks were able to score five times against the Truckers in Norwalk’s 52-35 win.
“I think this week, we have to play as a team,” Phillips said. “Last time we played Sandusky, we did a good job in the second halfo f keeping them out of the end zone in the fourth quarter. But in the first half we had some struggles.
“Someone has to be the first to the party, make a hit, then have the rest of team come and finish,” he added. “It can’t be one person, it has to be everyone fighting together as a team.”
Tche Leroux said the Truckers also have to be wary of Sandusky QB Shonsai Aaron, who was 10-of-22 passing for 141 yards with a TD and two interceptions in the first meeting.
“The thing that will be the hardest for us is containing the quarterback,” said Tche, who will play football at Div. I Toledo. “He can throw. We’re going to have to work on stopping the run if we can, but also make sure he isn’t throwing the ball downfield on us.
“If he gets wide on us, that’s what probably fears me the most,” he added. “But we are also confident in our ends to try and contain him as best we can.”
Trey Leroux wasn’t a full-time defensive lineman at the start of the season. At 6-feet-8, 315 pounds, the Div. I recruit was being asked early on to help on third downs or for a random fill-in.
But that has since changed.
“I definitely like being able to help the team as much as I can,” Trey said. “Being as big as I am, I can try to take on three or more guys. If I need to fill a hole, that’s what they have me do.
“We all just need to do our job on Friday,” he added. “We need to cover the outside. Terion is very fast and a hard guy to take down. We need to group up and tackle as a team.”
Entering Week 9, the Truckers were rolling.
Norwalk was 7-1, having won six straight games in mostly decisive fashion. But then a turnover-filled loss in overtime when Clyde converted a two-point conversion in a 32-31 setback on Oct. 19 sent the Truckers reeling.
They still had a chance to share the SBC Lake title in Week 10 with a win at Columbian, but got jumped on early and never got closer than 14 points in the 41-20 loss.
Suddenly, Norwalk went into the playoffs with back-to-back losses, 73 points allowed and no league title to speak of.
“I think that we kind of had big heads a bit,” Tche Leroux said. “We were rolling there for a while and thought we were the best. Then we lost to Clyde and got beat pretty good at Tiffin, and we were like, ‘Wow, you have to keep working and get better every day.’ That was pretty much it.”
Phillips echoed those sentiments.
“I think in our eyes we thought we were unstoppable at that point,” he said. “We got used to winning. So those losses kind of lit a fire under us where we were like, ‘Let’s work harder.’
“There is nothing left,” Phillips added. “There is no practice Monday if we don’t get it done on Friday. We’re trusting the process and doing everything we possibly can to do what we do on game night.”
Trey Leroux believes the mindset changed following the two losses, if nothing else. Norwalk has since responded with wins over Bowling Green (42-14) and Rocky River (56-7) by a combined 98-21 margin.
“I think we got a little complacent,” Trey said. “We were happy that we had achieved a winning season and the playoffs. But now that the losses did happen, we’ve switched into a gear to where we know we have to work hard and we’re not to where we want to be yet.
“Being able to play in Week 13, it’s a great thing to be a part of,” he added. “And we want to go farther. Everyone has to do their job and see what happens.”
Norwalk defensive leaders
— Tche Leroux, DL: 85 tackles, 15 sacks, 3 FR
— Josh Neuberger, LB: 111 tackles, 7 sacks
— Alec Maloney, LB: 105 tackles, 6 sacks
— Gabe Phillips, DL: 27 tackles, 4 sacks
— Ethan Hernandez, LB: 79 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR
— Trey Leroux, DL: 25 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FR
— Brandon Haraway, DB: 11 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT, 1 FR
— Jake Davies, DL: 12 tackles, 2 sacks
— Kaden Livingston, DB: 84 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INT, 1 FR
— Brandon Ehrenberg, DL: 10 tackles, 1 sack