The Norwalk girls basketball team lost at home, 51-36, to state-ranked Bellevue on Jan. 9. Afterwards, members of the team knew if they didn’t lose again between then and the regular season finale — a shot at the SBC Lake division championship was still in play.
But standing in the way was six league games — four on the road — and nine games overall in a 25-day span. Just last week, the Truckers played four games in six days, and three league games in five days — all on the road.
“It’s not been easy,” Norwalk junior guard Olivia Ward said. “We haven’t had that many serious injuries, but some of us have been banged up here and there. But staying mentally tough, at times, hasn’t been easy.”
Nine wins later, Norwalk has the finish line in sight.
The Truckers (18-3, 10-1) visit the Lady Red (20-1, 11-0) — ranked No. 2 in the final Associated Press state poll — in Thursday’s final game of the regular season. A win by Norwalk forces a co-title between the two teams, while a Bellevue win gives it the championship outright.
Bellevue has already clinched a share of its eighth straight league championship, which included the last seven Northern Ohio League titles. Adding even more spice to the regular season finale: both teams are the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the Div. II Galion district, one year removed from Norwalk’s 34-32 win over the Lady Red for the program’s first-ever district title.
“It can only get you better,” Norwalk coach Brock Manlet said. “I think the atmosphere the seniors played in last year in the district title game will be similar and help get us ready for that. It will kind of remind them what that was like.
“We’ve already talked to them about enjoying the environment and the experience,” he added. “You don’t get this type of situation very often. We’re excited to get there and play, and hopefully we play well.”
Since the loss to the Lady Red, Norwalk has won Lake division games on the road at Clyde, Perkins, Sandusky and Columbian — and also topped the Pirates and Shelby at home. There were also non-league wins over Ashland, Edison and Western Reserve mixed in.
Four of those wins involved comebacks in the second half.
“You always say take it one game at a time, but this group has really bought in to that,” Manlet said. “We never really talk too much about down the road, it’s always about the next opponent. There have been a lot of ups and downs. We’ve been in games where we’ve been down in the third quarter, we’ve had girls banged up, things like that.
“It’s just a credit to the girls,” he added. “They’ve stayed focused, they stick to the game plan and they buy into what the coaches are telling them. We’ve taken that approach every game, and it’s gotten us to this point and has worked out for us.”
In the 15-point home loss to the Lady Red, Norwalk fell behind by 10 in the second quarter, but got within four points on four different occasions after that. It was still a five-point deficit (37-32) with 6:20 left — but Bellevue closed the door with back-to-back 3-pointers in a 35-second span to pull away.
The Lady Red are paced by the familiar faces of Casey and Cory Santoro, the daughters of head coach, Kory, and younger siblings to 2,000-point scorer and Bowling Green standout, Carly.
A sophomore, Casey averages 22.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.9 steals per game. A freshman, Cory averages 15.5 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game. But Bellevue also has junior post Payton Vogel, who compliments the siblings with 9.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
“They are very hard to guard, because they have multiple girls who can drive to the basket and break you down — and multiple girls who can shoot it from anywhere,” Manlet said of Bellevue. “You’re stuck in that middle ground of how much do you help, how much do you recover, things like that.
“But we have to focus on being fundamentally sound,” he added. “We know it’s going to be a challenge, but I think we’re up for it.”
Bellevue averages 64.6 per games overall, but that number balloons to 80.3 per game in league games. The Lady Red allow 48 points per game in league play as well.
“We can’t let up and continue to play the defense we know how to play,” said Ward, who averages 4.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. “Obviously they are going to score points — they’re a great team.
“But we feel we’re a good defensive team, so we have to stay mentally focused at that end to give ourselves a chance,” she added.
Norwalk outscores teams by a 52.2-39.8 average overall, and 59.8-44.3 in 11 league games.
“They are a team that likes to create a lot of offense with their defense,” Bellevue coach Kory Santoro said. “They like to get up and pressure you, and they’re good at it — and have been for years.
“It’s an athletic team with Thomas girls, and Kaelyn (Harkness) especially is shooting and playing well right now,” he added. “Her perimeter shooting is something we have to be concerned with.”
Thursday’s game is also the second time in three seasons Norwalk attempts to win its first-ever league championship in girls basketball.
“We know it’s blank up there on the wall, and we’re to a point where we don’t want to just be there playing for it, we want to actually get it done,” Manlet said. “We were able to break through last year and get numbers on the banner for the district title, now we want to do it for a league title.
“But we also know how good Bellevue is. We know we’ll have to play a really good game and give our best effort in order to do that,” he added.