But also just as challenging.
There is certainly a buzz to Norwalk’s Division III regional championship game on Friday, and not just because the Truckers (9-3) are in Week 13 for the first time in the 47-year history of the state football playoffs. Not only is the 7 p.m. game just nearby in Bellevue, but Norwalk also rematches with SBC Lake Division foe Sandusky (8-4) — a team it beat in a wild 52-35 game on Oct. 5 at Strobel Field in Sandusky.
“It’s definitely exciting to play someone you know, but at the same time it has its challenges,” Norwalk coach Todd Fox said. “You have to adjust, and prepare for a different chess match to prepare to face that same team.”
Plus, a lot has happened in the five weeks from when the Truckers and Blue Streaks last played.
“I think both teams are very different than we were then,” Fox said. “I know we were passing the ball well at the beginning of the year, but it’s different now. We are more efficient in the passing game and Garrett (Chapin) is more confident.
“So that dynamic will help us, and I think we are playing better now on defense then we were then,” he added. “We’re using different looks and tools. So I think we’re very similar, but also very different.”
There is no secret where the offense starts for either team, however. The Blue Streaks boast junior running back Terion Stewart, the SBC Lake Outstanding Performer and Div. III OPSWA Northwest District Offensive Player of the Year.
Stewart has run for 2,640 yards and 34 touchdowns in 12 games this season — which included a 211-yard, 4-TD performance in the loss vs. Norwalk.
“We want to try and slow him down obviously, and our goal is to make him work for it and not give up the big play,” Fox said. “Inevitably it’s starts with trying to stop him and slow him down, and hopefully our offense responds on our end.”
On the other side of the field, Norwalk counters with senior running back Trevon Raymore, who has run for 2,254 yards and 26 TDs in his own right. That included one of the greatest single-game performances in OHSAA history when he carried the ball 40 times for 407 yards and 6 TDs in the win at Sandusky.
“I like our running back but they are different styles,” Fox said of Stewart and Raymore. “Terion is more of a shifty, wide-open, speed guy. Trey is more of a power-type running back.”
Norwalk and Sandusky both entered the Week 7 matchup with identical 5-1 records. The Truckers had not allowed a point in three-plus games, but the Streaks quickly put points on the board with two first-quarter TDs from Stewart, including a 70-yard run.
Norwalk led 14-12 after one quarter, and took a 31-20 halftime lead. Sandusky had taken a 20-14 lead after a turnover turned into a 29-yard TD pass from Shonsai Aaron.
But Norwalk’s Ethan Phillips returned the ensuing kickoff 38 yards to help set up a short Raymore TD run. Norwalk’s Alec Maloney and Jake Sommers stopped Stewart on a 1-yard gain on a fourth-down play on the next drive, and just two plays later Raymore ripped off a 73-yard scoring run with 38 seconds left in the half.
Norwalk wasn’t done. Sandusky misplayed a short kickoff and the Truckers recovered. That led to Garrison Smith’s 29-yard field with 12 seconds remaining in the half.
Stewart scored twice on runs of 64 and 1, sandwiched around a Chapin short TD run for Norwalk, giving the Truckers a slip 38-35 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Sandusky didn’t score on four fourth-quarter possessions, including when the Streaks went for it on fourth-and-8 from their own 17 with just under three minutes to play. That set up Raymore for a 4-yard TD with 1:55 left to make it a 45-35 lead. Brandon Haraway then intercepted an Aaron pass to set up Raymore’s last TD from 20 yards with 1:31 left to put the game on ice.
Aaron finished 10-of-22 passing for 141 yards with one TD and two INTs. But when it comes to defense, Fox said no one is obviously expecting another 400-yard, 6-TD game by his star running back — or 52 points for that matter.
In playoff wins over Bay (34-14) and Lexington (56-12), the Streaks have allowed just 26 points total.
“They are just playing team defense,” Fox said of Sandusky. “All their guys are rallying to the football. As with everyone at this point, you can tell they are comfortable now with the schemes. There is no second-guessing in what they do.”
Regardless of how much has or hasn’t changed, Fox said Week 13 has been special.
“Obviously everyone is excited, from the kids, student body, school and the community,” he said. “But honestly, our mindset is it’s another game. Our whole week, and every week so far, has been about getting better each day. That doesn’t change in Week 13 as much as it was the exact same in Week 1.
“We’ve made strides in some areas, and our eyes are focused forward,” Fox added. “It’s great to play a rival school from our conference. The kids know each other, so that adds another element to a regional final. I know by Monday afternoon, the kids were already excited and ready to get going this week.”
Norwalk stat leaders
— Trevon Raymore, RB: 295 att., 2,254 yards, 26 TDs
— Garrett Chapin, QB: 127-of-211, 1,781 yards, 13 TDs
— Brandon Haraway, WR: 37 catches, 605 yards, 3 TDs
— Tche Leroux, DL: 85 tackles, 15 sacks, 3 FR
— Josh Neuberger, LB: 111 tackles, 7 sacks
— Kaden Livingston, DB: 84 tackles, 5 INTs, 1 sack, 1 FR