While most of the Norwalk football team was a little bummed it could not rematch with Clyde in the second round of the playoffs — the flipside for Sowders and members of the Truckers’ defensive secondary is a new challenge.
Rocky River (7-4), Friday’s opponent at North Ridgeville in a Region 10 semifinal, averaged 25 pass attempts per game during the regular season. That number swelled to 42 pass attempts in the Pirates’ 27-17 win at Clyde last week in the first round.
For a Norwalk defense that has a program record 23 interceptions in 11 games — that is music to their collective ears.
“We’re very excited about that,” said Sowders, who set a program record this season with nine interceptions so far. “More passes in the air is the chance for us to show what we can do.”
In order for the Truckers to average two interceptions per game, it starts with competition behind Norwalk High School each day.
“We try to compete against each other every day,” said senior safety Kaden Livingston, who has five interceptions. “I know that’s a big thing — to see who and try and light it up in practice with the most interceptions.
“We’ve always been a competitive group, and that hasn’t let down at all,” he added.
Defensive back Jake Sommers and linebackers Ian Scheid and Ethan Hernandez each have two interceptions for the Truckers (8-3), while defensive back Brandon Haraway and linebacker Alec Maloney each have one.
Norwalk coach Todd Fox attributed much of the credit to defensive coordinator and secondary coach Pat Herron, who joined him from Tiffin Calvert.
“Our style of defense is very basic, and just play fundamental and fast,” Fox said. “With our athletes we have back there, they have reaped the rewards of playing that way and continue to get better — plus just their natural instincts are strong.
“Coach Herron has done a great job of getting them ready, but those kids have also bought in and done exactly what we need them to do,” he added.
The Norwalk defense went through a three-week stretch where it didn’t allow a single point from Week 4-to-6 against Edison, Shelby and Bellevue. The Truckers had won six straight games and were 7-1 entering the final two weeks of the season.
However, they allowed 73 points in back-to-back losses to end the regular season vs. Clyde (32-31, OT) and Tiffin Columbian (41-20).
But in the first round of the Division III playoffs last week, the Truckers allowed two touchdowns — both in the final minute of each half with the game well in hand.
“I think that game helped us get our feet back underneath us defensively,” Livingston said. “That game helped a lot. We take pride in our defense.
“We had the three shutouts in a row, and I know from our point of view, we don’t want to let anyone get past us,” he added. “We are the last line of defense out there, and we take a lot of pride in that.”
Norwalk has allowed 10 TD passes in 11 weeks.
“I listen to my coaches, but it’s also being in the right spot at the right time,” Sowders said. “Then it’s just about going up and getting it the best I can. We work hard in practice … the defensive backs do a lot of different drills each day.
“We like to carry ourselves as the hardest working group on the team,” he added. “And we try to play that way every Friday night.”
As a senior, Livingston talked about the up-and-down seasons so far. As a freshman in 2015, Norwalk was just 2-8. The Truckers were 6-4 in 2016, missing out on a playoff spot in the last week of the season.
Last season, Norwalk tumbled back to 3-7 before this year’s playoff season.
“You always have to take a step to go two steps,” Livingston said. “So take a step back to go even further, and I feel like that was a sign for us.
“I knew these guys always wanted to be successful,” he added. “And we have guys in the right place, and a couple guys who joined us (Tche and Trey Leroux) — and that really helped."
As for facing a potentially heavy pass attack this week, Livingston is also as excited as anyone.
"Yes, good, that's great,” he said. “I know our guys can hang with them, and it's a chance for us to see more opportunities in the air. I think as a competitor, that's something you should get excited for.”
And while Fox acknowledges the skill level on defense, he also said the mental side is a big factor in the turnovers this season.
"They are smart football players,” he said. “They play smart and know what they are doing. They read their keys and respond real well.
“Our linebackers are very good, and the line is interchangeable minus a couple of kids,” Fox added. “We've got eight guys deep up front doing a nice job to help protect our secondary.”