But from the start of the 2019 season on Aug. 16, things were different.
“It’s honestly crazy how much we’ve changed,” senior Austin Obermeyer said. “But in that first game, I just noticed there was something different about us.”
With Monday’s 4-0 win over visiting Perkins, the Truckers clinched at least a share of the Sandusky Bay Conference Lake Division championship. Norwalk (10-1-3, 8-0-2) tied with Vermilion twice.
The Sailors still have two Lake Division matches with Columbian, and will be decisive favorites to win both.
But the bigger story on Monday at the Norwalk Soccer Complex was where the Truckers came from to reach the top of the league.
Norwalk combined to go 8-19-2 in the 2017-18 seasons — but surged to 10 wins and counting this season.
“We felt that way right from the start,” senior captain Zach Keefer said about this season being different. “I couldn’t be happier for our team. We had a great effort this season. There was complete dedication to the program, and the coaches helped us get better in practice ever day. It clearly shows in the games.”
In Monday’s win, junior Will Gehlhausen opened the scoring in the first half with his 21st goal of the season to give the Truckers a 1-0 lead.
Junior Nate LaRoche then scored late in the first half off an assist from Brian Morales to put the Truckers up 2-0.
Just under five minutes into the second half, LaRoche again found the back of the net off an assist from Jose Ruiz.
Ruiz then capped the scoring with an unassisted goal with just 11.3 seconds left in the match. Goalkeeper Tyler Clark and the defense was tested with just five shots on goal.
“There was a lot of hard work and buying into the program,” Obermeyer said. “We decided that if we’re going to win, we can’t be selfish. We’ve passed the ball better this year, and moved the ball and did what we were told. This team was very unselfish.”
After finishing 15-3-1 in 2014 — the first league title in program history — things got tough for the program. The Truckers went 8-8-1 and 7-10-1 in 2015 and 2016, then followed with marks of 3-9-1 and 5-10-1 over the past two seasons.
“It was a slow process, and thinking back to last year, we were very young with a lot of inexperience at the varsity level,” Norwalk coach Jon Kijowski said. “The result was, our record wasn’t great and we took some bumps.
“But we knew if we implemented our system, we had a majority of those guys back — and credit to them,” he added. “They bought into our system and it’s working out. But these guys put the work in.”
Kijowski felt like competing for a league title was a realistic goal from the start of the season. But Obermeyer noted the team still needed to see the early results for that reality to start setting in.
“When we just came out and played really well (against Willard), it was almost like a realization, ‘Wow, we can do this,’” he said. “Then when we faced Vermilion the first time (1-1 tie on Sept. 9), a team that has always handled us in the past … we stuck with them the whole way.”
“Considering how poorly the last few years went, its crazy to me how we were able to turn it around this fast honestly,” Obermeyer added.
Up next for Norwalk is a non-league match at Huron (8-1-3) at 12 p.m. Saturday. The regular season finale is at home vs. Ashland (3-5-3) on Oct. 8 — then it’s Division II sectional tournament time.
“Now it’s about being prepared for the tournament, which we’ve not talked about at all with this being our main focus,” Kijowski said. “Now we turn our focus to that, and it won’t be easy. With Lexington, Madison, Edison, Vermilion and Huron — and throw us and Ontario in there.
“It’s a deep district,” he added. “But the message is we have to be better. We have a tough one on Saturday with Huron and then Ashland to end the regular season. No off days, no off games … we have to be ready.”