A year ago, head coach Todd Fox was coaching his first practice overseeing the Truckers football team. Norwalk was coming off a 3-7 season, and trying to find their way with a new system to learn on both sides of the ball.
On Thursday, 91 players were in helmets and shorts as the first official practice of the upcoming 2019 season was held. That number includes a large 24-player senior class.
Adding to the environment was a crisp practice, because of so much familiarity. Norwalk is bringing back 17 players with starting experience from last season’s Division III state semifinalist team — the second-best finish in the 124-year history of the program.
Yes, it’s definitely a different vibe for season No. 125.
“One of the things we really focused on last season was every kid is important to our team,” Fox said. “There are still some fringe kids who may not end up playing, but we try and find roles for everyone to play, whether that is Friday night on the field or not. We want them on our team, and numbers are certainly important for depth and the ability to have good practices against good players.”
Three wins in November certainly helped the overall health of the roster.
“They’ve embraced it, and a lot of them enjoy it and have fun with that good chemistry we have,” Fox said. “Obviously a lot of kids want to be part of that with the successful run we had last year. We know it’s not guaranteed, but we’ve seen the kids stick through the summer of hard work to try and do it again.”
As for the summer, the Truckers, who visit Mansfield Senior on Aug. 30 in the season opener, didn’t use the 10 activity days allotted by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Fox noted the experience coming back helped play a role in that decision.
“We work, we train, and we have some positional camp days to fill in the other days to make sure we stayed within that count of 10 days,” he said. “We went to Eastern Ohio Sports Complex (in Sherrodsville, east of Dover), which is an outstanding facility. Our No. 1 focus was building our team concept — and not just the football part.
“The most important part of our summer is building our chemistry and understanding each other,” Fox added. “But we did work on some things down there and got better, then we spent the last two weeks doing some passing scrimmages.”
With all the returning experience, Fox went as far as to remind his coaching staff on Monday to make sure they went back and at least went over the basic foundation of the offense and defense — just to be safe.
“It’s almost like we get to pick back up a lot from last year when we stopped playing past Thanksgiving,” he said. “Garrett (Chapin) looks fantastic as a second-year starter at quarterback and has a great group of receivers around him, but it’s different in a good way.”
Norwalk’s first scrimmage will be at the high school at 10 a.m. on Aug. 13 against Olmsted Falls — coached by 1999 NHS graduate Tom DeLuca. The Truckers then visit Genoa at 10 a.m. on Aug. 17, then host Shelby at 6 p.m. on Aug. 23.
“I’s been a great summer and the kids have been excited about it and embraced everything we do,” Fox said. “But now, summer is over and we’re building toward Week 1 at Mansfield.”
Business as usual for Flyers
Across town, St. Paul began practice at Whitney Field with a roster of 38 players.
Head coach John Livengood enters his 29th season at the school with 269-70 record. The Flyers enter the 2019 season with seven consecutive Firelands Conference championships, which includes 46 consecutive league wins in the process.
“The kids are working hard. I couldn’t be happier with the work ethic and the amount of dedication they’ve shown throughout the offseason,” Livengood said. “They put the time in because they want to have a great season and we’re all excited to getting started.
“It was real today (Thursday) as far as official practices, but we’ve been together obviously lifting in the offseason since January — and once you start summer lifting you start to see more of the kids not in different sports,” he added. “You get everyone together in lifting, the 10 camp days and doing a lot of stuff with that. The kids are in good position right now.”
After St. Mary Central Catholic backed out of the Aug. 31 season opener because of low numbers, St. Paul replaced the Panthers with Northgate High school out of Pittsburgh. The game is slated for a 6 p.m. kickoff at Whitney Field.
In preparation for the opener, the Flyers host Keystone at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the first scrimmage. The annual scrimmage against Edison is at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 23 in Milan.
The Flyers are looking to reach the playoffs for a eighth straight season in 2019, and the 15th time in the last 17 years. St. Paul will be looking to replace seven seniors from a 9-2 team last season. That group included its top passer, its leading three receivers and five of its top seven defensive tackle leaders — along with the kicking position.
“I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made over the summer,” Livengood said. “A lot of new faces are doing a great job and the leadership is very good. The kids get along, and that’s a big thing with me. How much they care about each other equates to success — and all those ingredients are there.”