With the move from the defunct Northern Ohio League to the Sandusky Bay Conference, both Norwalk and Willard were slotted in different divisions because of enrollment figures.
A year ago, the Bay Division had seven teams, which meant only 10 non-league games. And so after eight decades of two yearly matchups head-to-head as NOL members, the Truckers and Crimson Flashes did not play in 2018-19.
Then as luck had it — or didn’t in this case — both teams won 20-plus games and played in regional semifinal games in Division II and Division III on back-to-back nights last March at Bowling Green State University.
Had the game been played, it would have pitted a Norwalk team on a 14-game win streak and a Willard team riding a 10-game win streak.
But now, more league changes have brought the game back. As a result of the Bay Division having six teams, it opened up more non-league slots for Willard — and Norwalk was quickly contacted and agreed to resume the series.
The Crimson Flashes (4-0) visit the Truckers (3-1) on Saturday with a 6 p.m. junior varsity tip. It also marks the 120th meeting between the two programs. Willard has a commanding 79-40 lead, though Norwalk has won the last 15 entering the matchup.
“It will be a great test for us,” Norwalk coach Steve Gray said. “It’s fun for both communities, and we’re excited for it. We’re going to have a great crowd on Saturday, and I’m glad that Joe and Willard got us back on the schedule — because we should be playing each other. We’re thankful for that.”
Speaking of unique circumstances, Willard finds itself in one entering Saturday. Because of their opponents rescheduling games because of state playoff success in football, the Crimson Flashes last played on Dec. 6.
Once the official tosses the ball in the air on Saturday for the opening tip, Willard will have gone 15 days without playing — and it will be its fifth consecutive road game to start the season.
“It is what it is,” Willard coach Joe Bedingfield said of the unwanted layoff. “People ask me how is it going and what do you do, but all you can do is work on fine-tuning your team and getting them ready for the next game. Whether it’s four days or 15, it doesn't matter. We can always get better.”
Lengthy layoff or not, Gray knows his team has to be prepared for the matchup problems the Flashes will present.
“They are long and big inside and have some guards that can really play,” he said. “We’re going to have to play well. They do a great job on the offensive glass and get out in transition really well.
“Their ability to alter or block shots and get on their boards with their length is a strong point for them,” he added.
The Flashes are led by the 1-2 punch of Cooper Parrott and Terry Baldridge. An All-Ohioan last year, Parrott is averaging 16.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 4.0 steals per game. Baldridge averages 16 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.7 steals per game.
“Obviously Parrott and Baldridge are both exceptional players,” Gray said. “We have to do a great job on them.”
Myles Pinkston adds 10 points and 6.7 rebounds, while Micah Dawson averages 8.8 points and five rebounds per game for the Flashes. Willard is averaging 67.5 points, 38.8 rebounds, 14.3 assists and 13.8 steals per game. It allows 42 points per game.
On the other side, Bedingfield said there is little surprise from Norwalk, which continues to rely on its defense and rebounding on a yearly basis.
“And they defend and rebound as well as any team we will see,” he said. “Norwalk is a solid, well-coached team. We have to do a good job of seeking contact and making sure they don’t beat us up on the glass. We have to be able to get out in transition.”
The Truckers are being led by 6-foot-4 junior Garrett Chapin, who is six rebounds shy of posting four straight double-doubles to start the season. He enters Saturday’s game averaging 19.3 points and 9.8 rebounds, and is an impressive 27-of-43 shooting (63 percent).
“Chapin is a very physical player who has a knack for the basketball,” Bedingfield said. “It seems he is always around the ball, but what impresses me the most is his willingness to just go get it no matter what. Not only can he beat you underneath, but he can step out and shoot the 3, too.”
Norwalk averages 53.3 points, 34.5 rebounds, 13.3 assists and 5.7 steals per game — while yielding 45 points per game on defense.
Also for the Truckers, 6-2 junior Garrett Obringer averages 11.3 points and five rebounds per game, while junior guard Will Gehlhausen adds 7.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Senior guard Ryan Sowders adds 5.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
“Norwalk has more than just Chapin,” Bedingfield said. “They have a very good starting five who do a nice job of sharing the ball and executing their offense. We will really have to do a great job defending as a team.”
The Crimson Flashes opened the season with a 61-34 win over Perkins in a game played at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in Cleveland, then won a key road game at Upper Sandusky (3-1) by a 64-59 score on Nov. 27.
Willard then dominated at Bucyrus (78-40) and Port Clinton (67-35), but have then had to wait as games against Carey and Oak Harbor were rescheduled.
The Truckers opened with a 55-43 win over Mansfield Madison, then saw a late lead disappear in a last-second loss at Shelby (4-0) by a 57-55 score on Dec. 10. They rebounded with wins over Perkins (52-35) and Keystone (51-45) last weekend.
“Our kids will get a gauge of where we are at this point in the season,” Bedingfield said. “It's our fifth game in a row to start the season on the road and we have had 15 days off. Pick your excuse, but I want our kids to be able to come out against a good team at their place and play to our standards.
“These types of games will help us come tournament time.”