After back-to-back double-digit win campaigns, it still feels as if Norwell is a bit of an afterthought.
In most circles, Leo and East Noble are mentioned as Northeast Eight power programs before the Knights, despite two wins in the past two seasons over East Noble.
Even statewide, Norwell opens the season ranked No. 9 in the IFCA Poll despite bringing back the majority of its production from a team that lost to Class 3A runner-up Brebeuf, which is now in 4A.
So perhaps this season’s team slogan of ‘Stay Humble, Be Hungry’ is applicable as the Knights look make some noise in Class 3A.
Nearly all of the top offensive performers from a year ago are back with eight starters returning. Senior Lleyton Bailey threw for 772 yards and nine touchdowns without an INT in 2021. He did not need to throw too much due to having a pair of running backs that combined to rush for over 2,700 yards. Luke Graft (220 carries, 1,721 yards, 20 TDs) and Jon Colbert (150 carries, 1,044 yards, eight TDs) are both back and will be big-time players on both sides of the ball. Junior Trey Bodenheimer (49 yards, four TDs) will also see time in the backfield.
Most of the wide receiver production returns as well. Norwell’s leading pass catcher had just 13 receptions in junior Cohen Bailey, but those went for 214 yards and a score. Fellow junior Cade Shelton is back as well as senior Kline Neuenschwander, the duo combining for four scores.
A pair of top talents anchor the offensive front – Bowling Green commit Brody Bolyn at guard and Kyle Zeddis at tackle. Both were All-NE8 last year and are joined by junior Ayden Billiard as returning starts. The Knights will need to replace the likes of Cole Patrick and Ari Riley up front, but Coach Josh Gerber feels he has some potential in senior Tyler Luther and sophomore Logan Cotton.
Eight starters return on a defense that allowed barely 200 yards per game in 2021. There are playmakers at all three levels. Bolyn accumulated 41 tackles, 12 TFL and three sacks last season up front and is joined by Bodenheimer (nine tackles, two TFL).
The majority of the starting linebacker corps in Norwell’s 3-4 defense returns – headlined by a trio of seniors, Graft (65 tackles, nine TFL, two sacks), Aydan Rusu (68 tackles, nine TFL, three sacks) and Drew Ringger (35 tackles, seven TFL, one sack). This group is key in the Knights’ scheme as the linebackers are looked to roam the field to make plays sideline to sideline. Blake Haiflich, the team’s leading tackler from a year ago, leaves a void at outside linebacker that will need to be filled.
The secondary is also a strength with three guys back who started and had multiple interceptions last year – Colbert (47 tackles, two INTs), Neuenschwander (19 tackles, four INTs) and Shelton (43 tackles, three INTs).
Sophomore Drew Graft will be a player to watch in the defensive backfield.
An oft-forgotten weapon for Norwell is junior Austin DeLeon – who has started the last two years as the team’s kicker. He hit 31-of-33 PATs and 4-of-5 field goals in 2021 with a long of 40 yards.
With plenty of production, talent and experience back from last year’s sectional championship team, Norwell is poised to have its best season since 2006 when the Knights advanced to the state championship game.
The expectations are high inside and outside of Ossian, but Coach Josh Gerber is stressing the fact that this group needs to take care of business week by week to fulfill its goals. There are some holes that need filled with some young players, but the leadership is there to assist the inexperienced personnel to get acclimated quickly.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Norwell last won a league title in 2009 when it tied Homestead for the Northeast Hoosier Conference championship. It hasn’t won one outright since 2006.
This year’s squad is perfectly capable of ending that drought, but it still will need to beat the other two primary contenders in the NE8 – Leo and East Noble – on the road.
There are challenges looming in the postseason as well, with preseason No. 1 Chatard looming in a potential Class 3A regional matchup.
Week 3 at Leo
To capture an NE8 championship, the road still goes through Leo.
The Lions have knocked off Norwell seven straight times, including last year’s 41-7 drubbing in Ossian.
If the Knights have visions of winning an NE8 title, it needs to go into Leo and get a victory, especially when you compare the two squads and see continuity and experience on one side and a new coach and scheme on the other.
Is Norwell as good as we think it is? We will find out in early September against the Lions.
Lleyton Bailey, senior
Bailey was very good in terms of game management and avoiding turnovers last year. He did make some big throws at opportune times that kept defenses honest.
That said, when Brebeuf was able to bottle up Norwell’s run game last year in the regional, the Knights struggled to move the ball. If goals are to be met for this team, Bailey must be able to consistently make plays vertically and force defenses to pick their poison – run or pass.
To beat the likes of Leo in the regular season or Chatard in regional, Norwell must take that next step offensively.