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Huge non-league game starts key stretch for Norwalk

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Feb 8, 2019 at 8:07 AM

NORWALK — Even when the calendar switched to 2019, the idea seemed far-fetched.

But a 12-game winning streak has changed everything — including turning a non-league game into one of the biggest games of the season for the Norwalk boys basketball team.

The Truckers (14-2) visit Lexington (13-3) Friday night in a matchup with more on the line than just two impressive records.

Friday’s game falls less than 48 hours before the statewide tournament draw is finalized. That means the outcome is certainly going to have an impact on the top five seeds in the 15-team Division II Mansfield Madison district. 

Both teams are in the Madison district. Entering Friday, Norwalk is a half-game behind Vermilion (16-2) for the best record.

Meanwhile, the Minutemen aren’t far behind — and won the district and regional a year ago en route to the state semifinals. Mansfield Senior (13-3) and Clear Fork (15-3) are also in the top five discussion.

“This is a big one for us,” Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. “Yes, it’s a non-conference game but we know it’s got a little more attention. We’re going to give a good effort Friday, and whatever happens will happen.”

On the court, the game also features arguably the two best players in the Div. II Northwest District as well. Norwalk’s Brandon Haraway is an NCAA Div. II Ashland University recruit who averages 24.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals per game.

Lexington features 6-foot-5 Cade Stover, who was Ohio’s Mr. Football in December and a high-profile Ohio State University recruit on the gridiron. All he does is average 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game for the Minutemen this season.

“Stover is a lot better of a passer than people think,” Gray said. “The thing he does better than anyone else on our schedule is see the ball, get the ball. He really goes and gets it off the rim.

“Our posts will have to compete inside, and I have a lot of confidence in Kyler (Lacy),” he added. “I think he’s a good defensive player, and we need him and everyone to step up big (on Stover).”

Also for Lexington, Kyle Johnston adds 8.7 points per game, and Ben Vore is averaging 7.9 points per game. Johnston is shooting 37.7 percent from the 3-point line (26-of-69) through 16 games, while Josh Aiello adds 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest.

“Lex has great balance. Stover is an inside-out player, and we’re going to try and turn him into a jump shooter obviously,” Gray said. “They have kids who can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim or make pull up jumpers.

“Johnston is as good of a 3-pointer shooter as anyone around here,” he added. “He’s obviously a great cross country runner (state champion in November), but he’s also a great spot shooter.”

On Saturday, the Truckers stay on the road again when it visits West Salem Northwestern (14-4). Like Lexington in the Ohio Cardinal Conference, the Huskies are in first place in the Wayne County Athletic League. 

A three-point heavy team, the Huskies also boast 6-foot-4 junior Kaden Mellott (17.1 points per game) inside. J.J. Cline, Will Schaad and Cal Rhamy are the other top players for Northwestern.

“Run, gun and have fun,” Gray said of the Huskies. “They are going to press us and get up and down the floor. They average about 65 points per game and play 10 kids deep. Saturday should be a lot of fun, because we’ll run with them.”

Next Tuesday, the Truckers then host another big challenge in Div. III Oregon Cardinal Stritch (14-3) — another first place team, this time from the Toledo Area Athletic Conference.

Guard Jordan Burton (5-11) has 1,262 points entering this week and is a returning All-Ohioan for the Cardinals. But it doesn’t end there. Junior guard Joey Holifield scored his 1,000th point last Friday in a win over Toledo Christian. A third double-digit, Little Anderson, has also helped Stritch to a 58-10 record over the past two-plus seasons.

“They are a whole different animal,” Gray said. “If people want to see a great game, come out here for our home game Tuesday. They have two Div. I players and go 6-6 and 6-7 in the post … they are a lot like the Toledo Rogers team we played here six years ago.

“They just play, and you’re going to see some great athletes on the floor,” he added.

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