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Big stakes set for Norwalk-Bellevue in SBC Lake opener

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Oct 3, 2019 at 1:22 AM

NORWALK — This is why you sign up to play.

Winning by lopsided scores certainly has its perks. But big-time matchups with major league and playoff implications offer a different feel — and that’s just what the Norwalk football team will get on Friday at Bellevue.

The Truckers and Redmen both sport identical 4-1 records entering the 7 p.m. kickoff of the Sandusky Bay Conference Lake Division opener at First National Bank Field at the Bellevue Athletic Facility.

“Yes, we are excited — because we feel our league for schools our size is the best in the state,” Norwalk coach Todd Fox said. “At the same time, we have nothing but respect for Coach (Ed) Nasonti and what their program stands for.

“They always do things the right way,” he added. “If we can go out and go toe-to-toe with them each year, we know we’re doing some things right over here at Norwalk.”

On top of the winner getting an early leg up in the rugged Lake Division — which also features Tiffin Columbian (5-0), Clyde (4-1), Sandusky (4-1) and Perkins (3-2) — there is also playoff points at stake. Norwalk enters the game as the No. 4 team in Division III Region 10, while the Redmen are sixth in Div. IV Region 14 — meaning the winner will get plenty of second-level points as well.

Offensively, the Redmen enter the game averaging 36.2 points per game. They are led by junior quarterback Keegan Ray. The dual-threat QB is 44-of-79 passing for 722 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions, and has rushed 65 times for 499 yards and 8 TDs.

Ray’s top targets are Caleb Marshall with 19 catches for 407 yards and 8 TDs, as well as Jack Fitzgerald, who has eight catches for 177 yards and a TD. Running back Jack Howey adds 201 yards and 5 TDs on limited touches (19 attempts).

“They have many weapons that you have to be ready to slow down, and it all focuses around Keegan Ray and his abilities at quarterback,” Fox said. “He distributes the ball very well to Marshall and Howey among others.

“But the part that may not stick out as much and isn’t getting noticed is their defense is playing phenomenal,” he added. “They just fly to the ball and are very sound in what they do.”

The Redmen are allowing 10.4 points per game defensively. Bellevue began the season with blowout wins over Port Clinton (35-0), University School (49-14) and Mansfield Madison (28-0) before letting a 21-9 lead slip away in a 30-21 loss at Clear Fork on Sept. 20.

Bellevue then blasted Toledo start last week (48-8). Howey was an All-Ohio third team linebacker last season and has 41 tackles this season, while Max Ray adds 24.

“You don’t see a lot of mistakes on that side (defense) of the ball,” Fox said of Bellevue. “They are a very sound, well-coached team. Which is not a surprise … Coach Nasonti’s record speaks for itself.”

The Truckers enter the game on a four-game winning streak in convincing fashion. After falling 21-10 at Div. III No. 8-ranked Mansfield Senior (5-0) in the season opener, Norwalk has blasted Huron (42-20), Port Clinton (42-7), Edison (38-6) and Ontario (52-7) since.

That’s an average score of 44-10.

“We talk about winning the moment, and focusing on the day-by-day process,” Fox said. “Our goal was to make sure that we’re getting better, and I feel that we are. But we called last week ‘SBC eve” week. We know what’s coming.

“It’s taken to a whole new level this week, and we have to get better every single day — by leaps — just to be ready for this Friday and the grind of these last five weeks,” he added.

Quarterback Garrett Chapin is 49-of-74 passing for 819 yards with 3 TDs and 3 INTs. Over the past two weeks, Chapin is 19-of-21 for 347 yards and 2 TDs.

After rushing for 112 yards in the season opener, running back Evan Stumpf has eclipsed 200-plus rushing yards during the four-game win streak. For the season, he has 1,005 yards and 14 TDs on just 98 attempts (10.3 yards per carry).

Ryan Sowders leads all receivers with 17 catches for 353 yards and 2 TDs, while Ethan Phillips adds nine catches for 142 yards.

Norwalk’s first team defense has allowed five touchdowns this season in as many weeks. As a whole, the Truckers are allowing 12.2 points per game.

Defensively, Norwalk is anchored by linebackers Alec Maloney (56 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INTs) and Josh Neuberger (45 tackles, 2 INTs). Defensive lineman Jakob Stebel (25 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries) and Gabe Phillips (20 tackles, 6 sacks) lead the pass rush.

On special teams, junior kicker Garrison Smith is 25-of-25 on extra points and 3-of-3 on field goal attempts for 34 points. He also leads the SBC Lake with a 42.1-yard average on punts.

“It’s hard to pick one thing,” Fox said of his team’s success the past few weeks. “I just think we’re starting to put all our pieces together. We’re making some adjustments in-game … I think one of the key things in our last two games is Garrett’s passing. Evan has over 200 yards rushing in our last four games and had a nice game in the opener as well.

“As a unit, the offensive line is playing very well and our skill guys are complementing them with the production we’re getting,” he added. “But we can’t get complacent there. We need to turn it up another notch still.”

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