That is what stands between Norwalk and a trip to the Division III state championship game this Friday. The Truckers (10-3) face Kettering Archbishop Alter (12-1) — the Associated Press poll champions — in a state semifinal matchup at 7 p.m. at Wapakoneta’s Harmon Field.
“They are very fundamentally sound,” Norwalk coach Todd Fox said. “Alter is much like our local St. Paul team where they do what they do, and they do it very well.”
While Norwalk is in the state semifinals for just the second time — and first time since 1974 — Friday’s game is a bit of an old hat for the Knights program. This is Alter’s 11th state semifinal appearance, including seven in the last 13 years, and three out of the last four years. The Knights won state championships in 2008 and 2009.
Defensively, the Knights stand out. Playing in the tough Greater Catholic League, Kettering Alter has allowed just 89 points in 13 games (6.8 average). That includes three shutouts, and six other games of allowing just six or seven points.
“Their defense is very fast and flies to the football,” Fox said. “They are just aggressive and fast, with good team speed attacking the ball. They have multiple looks, whether it be four, five or even six-man fronts.”
The Knights had three All-Southwest District first team selections. They include senior defensive linemen Nathanial Armstrong (5-feet-11, 245), Connor Meyer (6-3, 245) and junior defensive back Antwann Martin (6-1, 190).
Armstrong missed last week’s 21-7 win over Wapakoneta in the Region 12 title game with a knee injury.
On offense, there is no secret where it starts with the Knights. Senior Connor Bazelak (6-4, 215) is a commit to the University of Missouri in the SEC.
In the regular season, he was 75-of-124 passing (61 percent) for 1,139 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
The All-GCL Offensive Co-Player of the Year and first team district selection doesn’t have eye-popping passing numbers because the Knights run the option offense.
But he proved his dangerous talents last week vs. Wapakoneta. Bazelak was 6-of-9 passing for 147 yards with a TD and also ran for one. He connected with second team district receiver Derek Willits (6-3, 193) for a 42-yard TD, and four times total for 120 yards.
Running back John Bivens (6-1, 205) has Div. I offers from Cincinnati, Kentucky, Louisville, Nebraska and Indiana, but has missed all season with a knee injury. His replacement, sophomore running back Brandon McDonald, added 76 yards and a TD last week for the Knights.
“Earlier in the year they had a game (Week 3 vs. Centerville) where he threw 49 times,” Fox said of Bazelak. “I don’t know the he’s thrown that many times since. I think even though they have a Division I quarterback, they want to do their offense.
“I think he is very comfortable,” he added. “But it also makes him very dangerous, too, trying to stop the run and pass threat.”
Fox also said the Alter offense plays a key role in helping the defense play so well.
“They are methodical, so the opponents’ offenses aren’t getting on the field a lot,” he said. “So every time we have the ball, it will be critical to move sustain drives and make them uncomfortable.”
The Knights are averaging 35.4 points per game.
Norwalk counters with an offense averaging 32.4 points while allowing 16.8 points per game — including 12.6 points allowed in three playoff wins.
Running back Trevon Raymore has run for 2,352 yards and 27 TDs on 317 attempts. Garrett Chapin is 142-of-231 passing (61 percent) for 1,970 yards with 13 TDs and 9 INTs, with Brandon Haraway catching 45 passes for 675 yards and 3 TDs.
Kaden Livingston adds 28 catches for 566 yards and 3 TDs, and Ryan Sowders has 32 catches for 379 yards and a TD. Kicker Garrison Smith is 56-of-57 on extra point attempts and has six field goals.
Defensively, Josh Neuberger has 119 tackles and seven sacks for Norwalk. Alec Maloney has 112 tackles and six sacks, while Tche Leroux adds 89 tackles, 16 sacks and three fumble recoveries.
Also for the Truckers, Livingston has 88 tackles and five interceptions, while Ethan Hernandez has 82 tackles, four sacks and two INTs.
“They have talented players all over, but I like our matchup,” Fox said. “I like our defense matching up with their power run game offense, which I think is the strength of our defense.
“Offensively, we’re just going to have to be very patient and be happy taking those little yards at a time,” he added.
Fox talked about how fun the week has been, which will be capped with a Thanksgiving practice and Friday’s game.
“I think I’m most impressed at how our kids understand the big picture,” he said. “Just in terms of how important it is not just for themselves, but for their community and how they represent Norwalk.
“And that to me is impressive,” Fox added. “They see that. We’re excited to be one of the four teams in Division III playing football on Friday. Anytime you get to practice on Thanksgiving, it’s a great thing”
Fox said the Truckers will also embrace the travel involved with playing the Knights in Wapakoneta, a 115-mile trip for Norwalk.
“It’s the state semifinals, we realize we’re going to travel,” he said. “We’ll embrace it and make it an adventure. In some other sports the semifinals and finals are in the same location, but we get to meet two hours away. Great. Hopefully our fan base follows with us, and it will be an exciting day.”