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The top local sports stories of 2019

Mark Hazelwood • Dec 31, 2019 at 12:00 PM

It was another banner year for area high school sports teams, as well as recent graduates at the collegiate level.

We saw one the biggest single-season turnaround in the state by an area football team, three area boys basketball teams play in Sweet 16 games in a 72-hour span, as well as two cousins with legendary Norwalk high School careers end their collegiate careers in the “Big Dance.”

From regional championships to state finalists in other high school sports, the 2019 calendar year offered a bit of everything.

Here is a look back at some of the top stories for the year for Norwalk Reflector area sports:

 

The next 10 (honorable mention)

In chronological order: Norwalk native Geena Freriks recorded top 20 time in the world in 1,000-yard freestyle swim; St. Paul’s Jarret Schaffer 10th at state swimming; Justin Sommers throws no-hitter as Norwalk baseball clinched SBC Lake title; St. Paul baseball opened Norwalk Area Contractors Park with third straight FC title; Norwalk sophomore Nyah Daniels scored 40 goals; Megan Berry became Norwalk girls tennis wins leader; St. Paul runner Lily Dowdell became four-time FC cross country champion; Norwalk volleyball won 10th district title; Monroeville football upset St. Paul in finale; New London boys XC finished seventh in state.

10. New program points leaders

Spanning both the 2018-19, and the early going of the 2019-20 basketball seasons, three area high school programs have seen new all-time leading scorers.

Last season, New London boys senior Karson Howell became the all-time points leader for the Wildcats, surpassing Ryan Lane. He finished his New London career with 1,143 points and was coached by his father, Tom Howell, who immediately announced his retirement after 14 seasons that included two Firelands Conference titles, a district championship and 174 wins.

This season, Willard girls senior Cassidy Crawford passed Alisa Peddicorn Gibson, while South Central boys senior claimed the top spot in Trojans program history by passing the totals of Tom Kramb. Crawford is signed with NCAA Div. II powerhouse Ashland University, while Blair has signed with Div. II Malone University.

 

9. Monroeville softball’s tournament run

For several years, the Eagles had been knocking on the door in both the FC, and Division IV district softball scene.

In May, they kicked the tournament door in.

After coming up short by a late run to Crestview in the FC race, Monroeville turned its attention to a potential tournament run.

In a district semifinal vs. Mohawk, the Eagles trailed 5-0 entering the bottom of the fifth inning — only to score nine unanswered runs for the 9-5 win.

Facing Lucas in the district title game, the Eagles again trailed, 3-0, through five innings. They forced extra innings, then won with a run in the bottom of the ninth for the program’s first-ever district championship.

But it didn’t stop there. The Eagles then cruised past McDonald to reach a regional championship, where it fell to longtime state power Hillsdale, 5-0, at Firestone Stadium in Akron.

 

8. Trey Leroux to Ohio State

Trey Leroux didn’t just land any full scholarship to a big-time Power Five football school. That it was one of the most recognizable and elite programs in the history of the sport put the 6-foot-8, 325-pound Norwalk senior offensive lineman among the top stories of the year when he signed with Ohio State University.

A two-time OPSWA All-Ohio first team selection and two-time Northwest District Lineman of the Year, Leroux signed on Dec. 18 with the Buckeyes, and begins classes on Jan. 6 as an early enrollee. The Buckeyes went 13-1 and reached the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2019, where they lost a thriller to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, 29-23, on Dec. 28.

 

7. Norwalk legends, cousins close careers

Jeff Thomas and Ben Haraway are linked forever in more ways than one.

The first cousins will forever be remembered in the annals of Huron County sports after they led the Norwalk basketball team to 57 straight regular season wins, four league championships, two district titles and the ultimate: the Division II state championship in 2014.

Once they reached college, the success didn’t stop for either one. Haraway ended his career at Div. II Ashland University with more than 1,000 points and an NCAA Tournament appearance with the Eagles.

For Thomas, it was the same. He surpassed 1,000 points and also got to play in two NCAA Div. I tournaments with Georgia State University as Sun Belt Conference champions.

 

6. State wrestling standouts

Led by its first state finalist in 27 years, the Norwalk wrestling program had its best team performance in program history at the OHSAA Div. II state championships in March.

Highlighted by a state runners-up finish from Ethan Hernandez (160), the Truckers had four state placers, which also included Alec Maloney (third, 220), Gave Phillips (fifth, 182) and Tche Leroux (sixth, 285). That put Norwalk sixth overall in the Div. II team standings.

Also from the area, Edison’s Ray Adams also reached the state title match, and was joined on the podium by teammates Jacob Brewer (fourth, 195), Casey Barnett (fifth, 113), Jordan Keegan (sixth, 138) and Alec Homan (sixth, 106). Edison finished third in the Div. III team standings, also equaling its highest finish in Columbus.

St. Paul’s Cam Caizzo placed eighth in Div. III at 182 for the Flyers.

 

5. Norwalk, St. Paul win home playoff games

It was just the second time in the 21-year history of the expanded state playoffs that the Maple City hosted two Week 11 games on the same weekend.

And much like the first time around in 2014, it was a clean sweep as the Truckers and Flyers pulled away late for first-round playoff wins at Whitney Field.

On Nov. 8, the Truckers methodically pulled away from Cleveland Glenville for a 22-2 win in a Division III first-round game. The next night on Nov. 9, the Flyers also steadily distanced themselves from visiting Edon for a 35-21 win.

Norwalk and St. Paul have qualified for the state playoffs in the same season just four times, all in the last seven years — 2013, 2014, 2018 and 2019.

 

4. Western Reserve’s turnaround

The biggest turnaround from 2018 to 2019 in the state of Ohio was in Collins this fall.

After a 2-8 season under first-year head coach Ty Stevenson in 2018, the Western Reserve football team exploded in 2019.

Behind the strength of All-Ohio Player of the Year Cody Benesh, who ran for more than 2,000 yards and 36 touchdowns, the Roughriders suffered just a 34-27 setback to playoff-bound Edison in Week 2 during the regular season.

Highlighting the 9-1 regular season was a wild 41-35 overtime win at St. Paul on Oct. 19 — a game that snapped the Flyers’ 50-game Firelands Conference win streak. The next week, they also outlasted a third FC playoff team, Crestview, in a 54-42 shootout in Collins to clinch the program’s sixth-ever FC title.

The Roughriders fell in the first round of the playoffs to Carey, also capping the program’s fourth-ever trip to the postseason. On top of Benesh’s highest honor on the all-state team, Stevenson was selected as the Div. VI OPSWA All-Ohio Coach of the Year.

 

3. Norwalk football wins SBC Lake

In 2018, the Truckers football team was 7-1 and needed to stop Clyde in overtime on a two-point conversion attempt to win at least a share of the SBC Lake Division championship.

Norwalk was unable to stop the Fliers that night, falling 32-31 in the OT game at Whitney Field. Exactly one year later, the Truckers were again 7-1, and were again in overtime against the Fliers — who were lined up going for two points and the win while trailing 41-40 in Clyde.

But this time, the Norwalk defense got the stop, preserving the 41-40 victory. With that win was the SBC Lake Division title, which it shared with Tiffin Columbian. It marked just the fourth league championship for the Truckers between the Northern Ohio League and Sandusky Bay Conference — dating back 76 years to 1944.

The Truckers also won playoff games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the 48-year history of the OHSAA state playoff format.

 

2. Three hoops teams win district titles

It was March Madness indeed for area boys basketball teams last season.

Both Norwalk and Willard went on lengthy regular season win streaks, but then both took care of business in their respective Div. II and Div. III sectional and district tournaments.

The Crimson Flashes were never threatened in three tournament wins over Crestview, Carey and Upper Sandusky en route to a district title — their first in 13 years.

The Truckers, however, had to stave off a pesky Columbian team in a sectional semifinal, then survived Ontario in triple overtime in a district semifinal before controlling a 17-point win over Vermilion to claim the program’s fourth district title.

Meanwhile, after being turned away twice by Western Reserve in the regular season, South Central entered the tournament without a league title. But the Trojans, too, went extra time to claim the program’s first regional appearance in 45 years.

After pulling away from St. Mary C.C. (65-60) in a sectional final, the Trojans topped Margaretta in OT (57-53) in the district semis, then pulled away from Colonel Crawford late in a 48-37 win for the district title.

Playing in Sweet 16 games on three consecutive days in March, the Trojans fell to New Middletown Springfield (62-50), while the Flashes fell to Coldwater (75-54) and the Truckers lost to Columbus South (61-54) in regional action.

 

1. Monroeville volleyball returns to state

The Eagles entered 2019 with the expectation of returning to the Division IV state semifinals for a second straight season.

Led by eight seniors, Monroeville returned a veteran team, and flirted with a 22-0 regular season — save for a five-game loss at FC rival St. Paul on Sept. 19. In what has been the best area rivalry of the decade in any sport, the Eagles and Lady Flyers seemed destined to do it once again in the district championship match in Willard.

The two programs again didn’t disappoint.

Though the Eagles won the first two sets in the Oct. 24 rubber match, it was St. Paul rallying back to win the next two — which included a 20-13 deficit in Game 4 — and once again force a winner-take-all fifth game between the two.

But this time, it was the Eagles rallying from behind. They turned an 8-4 deficit into a thrilling 15-11 win to again return to the regional semifinals.

After surviving St. Paul again, the regionals were a breeze for the Eagles. They dominated both New Middletown Springfield and Dalton in three-game sweeps. Neither opponent eclipsed 20 points in any of the six games as Monroeville won its second consecutive regional championship.

At the state semifinals, the Eagles rematched with Midwest Athletic Conference foe New Bremen for a second straight year. And for a second straight year, the Eagles again went the five-game distance, losing a heartbreaker in the final set, 15-13, to close the banner season with a record of 26-2.