But it was all worth it.
“I saw a team that finally realized what we talked about, they can achieve,” Norwalk coach Todd Fox said when asked to assess his team’s performance last week. The Truckers (8-3) raced out to a 28-0 lead in a 42-14 win over visiting Bowling Green in a Division III first-round playoff game.
“We talked so many times about the kids believing in themselves and what they can do,” Fox said. “They saw what they can achieve. If they believe, fight and work together for the same goal — the sky is the limit, as long as we take it one day at a time.”
Up next for Norwalk is a Region 10 semifinal against Rocky River (7-4) at 7 p.m. Friday at North Ridgeville’s Ranger Stadium. The Pirates were the eighth and final seed in the region, but are coming off a 27-17 win at top-seeded Clyde it mostly controlled.
As the No. 4 seed, Norwalk was the lone top-half team in the region to win last week. Lexington (7-4) and Sandusky (7-4) meet in the other Region 10 game at Willard High School.
The Pirates are led by quarterback Michael Finnegan, who was 161-of-252 for 1,969 yards and 16 touchdown passes in the regular season.
Finnegan spreads the ball around to Owen Bebie (41 catches, 462 yards, 4 TDs), Cristain Dean (36 catches, 543 yards, 5 TDs), Luke Coyne (23 catches, 289 yards, TD) and Ryan O’Donnell (22 catches, 276 yards, 3 TDs).
In the win at Clyde, Finnegan was 24-of-42 for 245 yards and 2 TDs while also finishing as the team’s top rusher with eight attempts for 46 yards. Dean caught nine passes for 105 yards in the win.
As a kicker, Bebie is 25-of-28 on PATs and 7-of-11 on field goals, including good kicks of 29 and 43 yards in the win at Clyde last week.
“Offensively they are a pass-first team,” Fox said of Rocky River. “They will come out to you with multiple different looks. Through the films we have, each team they have faced is drastically different in terms of what they do.
“They game plan specifically for the team they play that week,” he added. “But it still comes down to a very good quarterback and talented receivers.”
Defensively, linebacker Ross Hartman was an All-Ohioan last year, but missed three games because of an injury this season. He still has 53 tackles (nine for loss) and two sacks for the Pirates.
Defensive back Daishaun Hill had 44 tackles with 10 pass breakups, an interception and five fumble recoveries in the regular season. He also ran 85 times for 405 yards and 3 TDs.
Safety Hunter Piguet added 52 tackles and 4 INTs, while defensive end Michael Shoaf had 39 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles and three recovered fumbles.
“Defensively they run a 4-2 much like we run, and from what we have seen, they used some man coverages last week,” Fox said of the Pirates. “I think they timed up and threw some blitzes that were effective last week at Clyde. But overall, they just play sound, fundamental defense.”
The Pirates lost to four playoff teams in the regular season including three by a combined 13 points. The Pirates lost to Medina Buckeye (28-21), Bay (21-16), Valley Forge (28-27) and Elyria Catholic (33-13). Last week’s win at Clyde was the first of seven wins for Rocky River against a team with a winning record.
“They are a good team. It’s the second round of the playoffs, all the teams are good,” Fox said of the Pirates. “If you are here, you earned it. They are more finesse team we’ve seen in a while ... it will be a battle at Ranger Stadium.”
In the win over Bowling Green, quarterback Garrett Chapin was 14-of-19 passing for 177 yards with 2 TDs. Brandon Haraway caught seven of those passes for 99 yards and a score. Running back Trevon Raymore carried 30 times for 128 yards and 2 TDs to surge over the 2,000-yard mark this season (2,026) to join Breck Turner (2,795 yards, 2014) as the only two players in program history to reach the yardage milestone.
If Norwalk is to play a third playoff game for the first time in a single-season, Fox said there is more improvements to be made on Friday.
“I think we can always improve and sustain our blocks a little longer up front on offense,” he said. “Defensively, we can swarm to the ball faster. But we played a very good game last week.
“We wanted to put four quarters together, now let’s continue that,” he added. “But getting off the field on third downs defensively and eliminating silly penalties — those are things we can always get better with.”
Friday’s game is the third Week 12 in program history. In 1974, just four teams made the playoffs when the Truckers won the Class AA state championship. It also advanced to the second round in 2014, falling to Clyde (35-24) in a Div. III game at Perkins High School.
Norwalk and Rocky River have played four times — but not since 1952.
Norwalk playoff history (4-2)
— 1974: beat Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, 20-7 (state semifinals at Akron)
— 1974: beat Louisville St. Thomas Aquinas, 27-17 (state championship at Dayton)
— 2013: lost at Tiffin Columbian, 34-28, 2OT (first round)
— 2014: beat Perkins, 42-34 (first round at Whitney Field)
— 2014: lost vs. Clyde, 35-24 (second round at Perkins)
— 2018: beat Bowling Green, 42-14 (first round at Whitney Field)