When looking at the NE8, there are two teams with incredible similarities.
Three years ago, Coach Pete Kempf and DeKalb won just three games before winning five in 2018 and breaking out in 2019 with an 8-3 campaign.
Meanwhile at Norwell, Coach Josh Gerber’s Knights won two games in 2018 and five a year ago.
Could a similar breakout season be in the cards for Norwell?
With talented and sizable senior and junior classes, similar to what DeKalb had a year ago, Outside the Huddle is on the Norwell bandwagon.
“We have great groups among our older kids who are great leaders and are hungry to get better,” Gerber said. “Four of our losses last year came by 11 total points. We don’t want to play the “ifs and buts” game but we had some opportunities last year for sure.”
Norwell did let a few slip away last year, most memorable the epic 3-2 game against Leo. But three-point losses to Columbia City and Concordia and a four-point defeat at DeKalb also stand out.
The mission this year is to turn those close losses into victories, something Gerber feels he can do with a veteran group back in the offensive backfield, up front and in the secondary.
Senior Eli Riley threw for 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns at QB last season while also rushing for 600, but did throw 12 INTs. He must cut down the turnovers for the Knights to turn the corner. Riley also was third on the team in tackles from his free safety spot.
Riley will have help with senior Max Ringger, who rushed for 918 yards and 10 touchdowns.
A few players who weren’t at full strength last year have the potential to break out, including senior Joel Rinkenberger at RB/slot and junior Bo Morgan, who missed the entirety of 2019 with a torn ACL.
The offensive line returns four starters, a good sign considering the amount of firepower that side of the ball has at the skill positions.
Two-way lineman Zach Christianson will be an anchor in the trenches for both offense and defense.
The secondary is experienced and strong with Riley, sophomore Luke Graft, Lleyton Bailey and Jon Colbert all giving Norwell solid options on the back end.
Over the past few years, Gerber’s biggest hurdle was getting his players to believe that they could compete against the likes of East Noble and Leo. While Norwell still may be a tad behind that duo in the league, last year proved those both inside and outside the program that the Knights are on the upswing.
The key this year is to maximize the opportunity, again, similar to what DeKalb did in 2019.
“The goal is to really take a significant step forward,” Gerber said. “We have the group to do it for sure.”
With the amount of production returning and the trajectory of the last few years, it is easy to see that Norwell could be in for its best season since it went 8-2 in 2009.
The Knights showed last year in close-fought battles with the likes of Leo, New Haven and Concordia that they are vastly improved from just a few years ago. With an experienced quarterback, skill players and linemen back, Norwell is looking good on paper entering the fall.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Norwell turned the ball over 24 times last year and finished -7 in turnover differential. It is highly improbably that the Knights can reach the 8-9 wins if they are as careless with the football as they were in 2019.
There is no question that the Knights can compete up front, they did it a year ago and they return a wealth of experience. But can the skill guys make the plays with games on the line? Coach Gerber is confident they can, but OTH is still taking a wait-and-see approach.
Week 5 vs. New Haven
OTH foresees three wins in Norwell’s first four weeks, with the lone loss coming Week 3 at Leo. A showdown with the ‘Dogs at home with (hopefully) fans in attendance should have a keyed-up environment in Ossian.
If Norwell can come out and take down New Haven to end a nine-game skid against the Bulldogs, it will set the tone for the second half of the year, especially with a trip to Kendallville to take on East Noble one week later.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Bo Morgan, junior, slot/running back
On a team full of experienced seniors, Morgan is looking to make an impact as a junior after missing all of last season due to injury. In a conference in which the top teams have heavy offensive weaponry, any bit of reinforcements that Norwell can deploy will be helpful.
Enter Morgan, who could be the change of pace back to Ringger while also presenting issues in the slot. Look for him to be active in the offense as Coach Gerber looks to take advantage of his versatile skill set.
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