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Interesting first half of the season for Truckers

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Jan 15, 2020 at 10:46 PM

NORWALK — The gym had mostly cleared out from all spectators as chairs were being lined up against the back wall Tuesday night at Norwalk High School.

It was there — in two of the chairs that were set up for a wrestling match — that longtime Norwalk boys basketball coach Steve Gray sat with his assistant coach, Tom Foster. The two have coached together for 18-plus seasons in Norwalk.

In the almost empty gym, after the Truckers had played one of their best games of the season — a 52-40 win over Clyde — Gray and Foster discussed ideas and different strategies to implement at the halfway point of the season.

The image of the two tells the story of the Truckers so far. The chairs were set up for a wrestling match, but the two coaches were still wrestling with what type of season Norwalk has had — and can have yet moving forward.

After a 64-58 win over Tiffin Columbian on Jan. 10, Gray was asked what type of team he had up to that point. The coach of nearly 450 wins — including 271 at Norwalk — said he still didn’t know.

Following Tuesday’s win, Gray said things are still a bit unclear.

“We’re still searching to find out who we are and what gives us the best chance to win every night,” he said. “We changed a couple things (for Tuesday), some little things defensively, and we’ll see how that works.”

It’s certainly been an interesting season at the halfway point for the Truckers. They are 7-4 overall and 5-1 in the SBC Lake Division standings.

In one sense, Norwalk has endured losses by 22 and 24 points to state-ranked teams in Willard (10-1) and Sandusky (10-0). It also lost by double-digits, 66-56, last weekend to an Ashland team that entered the game with just one win. That equaled last season’s loss total in 26 games by the 10th game of this season.

The Truckers’ fourth loss was at Shelby on Dec. 10 in the second game of the season. They coughed up a seven-point lead with just 75 seconds left in a 57-55 setback to the Whippets (10-1).

On the flip side of that, the Truckers are just one game out of first place behind the Blue Streaks in the league standings after the first round of play. If they can win at Perkins (4-9, 3-4) on Friday and at Vermilion (0-12, 0-6) on Jan. 30, the Truckers can head to Sandusky on Feb. 7 in game No. 18 out of 22 with the ability to play for first place.

Within the Division II Mansfield Madison district, the Truckers find themselves with the sixth-most wins in the 11-team field — but currently five of the 11 teams are within two wins of each other. Upper Sandusky is currently 11-1, while Shelby at 10-1 has lost just to the Rams. Gray noted the Truckers were right there, and probably should have finished in the two-point loss on the road to the Whippets.

Norwalk hosts Huron (8-2), which currently has the third-best record in the district, on Saturday.

“There have been some challenges, but everything is still right in front of us as we go toward Friday night,” Gray said. “We can still have the league right in front of us, and obviously Friday at Perkins is our most important game of the year. The tournament draw is getting closer ... we’re 11 games in, but in two weeks, we’ll have played 16 games.”

Junior Garrett Chapin averages 15.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game for the Truckers, while senior Garrett Obringer is scoring 12.8 points and grabbing 5.1 rebounds per game. Junior guard Will Gehlhausen adds 8.7 points, 3.7 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game as Norwalk looks for a third consistent scoring option.

But the calling card is still defense. The Truckers enter Friday allowing 48.4 points per game — still tops in the seven-team Lake Division. It’s no surprise then to note in the four losses, the Truckers gave up 9-to-18 points above their points allowed average. Only one win among its seven, last week’s 64-58 win over Columbian, has Norwalk yielded more than 48 points.

“I’d like to say defense is our identity,” Obringer said. “I think on offense it’s the two Garrett’s run us on offense, and then together play team defense at the other end of the floor. If we play solid on defense, we know we’ll be in position to have a chance to wine very game we play. Our big thing is we just have to stay consistent and play our style.”

It was just one game, but Tuesday’s win over the Fliers is the formula Gray and Foster are looking to see more often. The Truckers held a team to 40 points, shot over 50 percent from the floor, and got 36 points and 18 rebounds from Chapin and Obringer, along with seven assists from Gehlhausen.

When the Fliers made some defensive changes in the second half to claw back in the game, Clyde coach Ryan Fretz noted it was Norwalk that responded with a counter to that against his team. It led the Truckers to a 21-9 scoring stretch to finish off the win.

“They countered against us and were able to execute their game plan down the stretch,” Fretz said.

It all leads to Norwalk entering the second half of the season with everything in front of it — yet still searching.

“It’s taking care of the basketball and how to put kids in a position against pressure so we do a much better job,” Gray said. “We’ve been switching defenses and trapping a little bit. I don’t know if that’s the answer, or if we go to more of a backline defense. But (Tuesday) we were successful.

“As coaches and players, we’re still looking,” he added. “But the great thing is we’re 7-4, we’re second in the league ... and if we take care of business, we can go to Sandusky next month and see what happens.”

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