A year ago, Norwalk’s football team did everything but win the Northern Ohio League championship.
Tuesday night in Willard, more than 10 different media outlets tabbed the Truckers as slight favorites to end a 38-year title drought in the NOL, just ahead of Tiffin Columbian in one of the closest votes in recent memory.
With 19 voters participating, Norwalk received 10 first-place votes and 118 points to Columbian’s nine first-place votes and 110 points. Bellevue is also again expected to be right there, as they were a runaway choice for third with 91 points.
Ontario was fourth at 63, followed by Sandusky (54), Shelby (36) and Willard (27).
Last season, Norwalk finished 9-2, losing two games to Columbian in the final minutes, aided by a pair of bad snaps. In the regular season, a low snap on a punt was snuffed out by the Tornadoes inside the Norwalk 10-yard line, and moments later Columbian scored the game-winning touchdown with 5:49 left in a 24-20 victory.
The two teams then matched up again in the opening round of the Division III Region 8 playoffs in Tiffin. In double-overtime, Norwalk had second-and-goal at the Columbian 3 with a chance to win the game, but a snap sailed over quarterback Jordan Johnson’s head, and the Tornadoes held on for a wild 34-28 win.
If the Truckers are to win their first NOL title since 1976, it will have to come on the legs of the area’s top returner. Senior running back Breck Turner returns after rushing for 1,910 yards and 33 touchdowns last season. Turner, a first team All-Ohioan last season, enters the season with 11 full scholarship offers to Division I colleges, including Minnesota and Illinois from the Big Ten.
Norwalk and Columbian is again the league opener on Sept. 19 in Tiffin.
Meanwhile, 24th year Bellevue coach Ed Nasonti welcomes back 14 of 22 starters on both sides of the ball and 18 lettermen from a team that finished a competitive 6-4 (4-2 NOL).
The Redmen lost games in 2013 to Perkins (11-1), Clyde (12-2), Columbian (10-2) and Norwalk (9-2), and beat Huron (9-4), giving them a schedule that had five playoff teams in 10 games.
Key Bellevue returners include quarterback Triston Snezek (60-of-110, 1,031 yards, 11 TDs), running back Maurice Barnhouse (61 att., 422 yards, 5 TDs) and linebacker Joey Marin (73 tackles, 3 sacks).
Bellevue will face Columbian and Norwalk in back-to-back weeks on Oct. 3 and Oct. 10, hosting the Tornadoes and visiting the Truckers.
Mike Franklin is expecting to field an extremely young team when Sandusky kicks off the season at Huron on Aug. 29. The Blue Streaks were 3-7 in 2013 (3-3 NOL) and similar to Bellevue, have four playoff teams from last season on the schedule in 2014.
Senior running back and linebacker Ben Fuller (410 yards, 4 TDs; 40 tackles, 2 sacks) is the top two-way returning player for the Blue Streaks.
Sandusky’s schedule features no breaks early, visiting Huron and Perkins, then hosting Fremont Ross. The Streaks also visit Columbian (Sept. 26) and host Norwalk (Oct. 3) in back-to-back weeks in league play.
Meanwhile, third-year coach Mark Matula will field a roster with low numbers in Willard with hopes of bouncing back from a 1-9 season in 2013. But the Crimson Flashes also feature a schedule with playoff teams Wauseon (9-2), Loudonville (10-2) and Norwalk and Columbian from last season.
Top returners for the Crimson Flashes include quarterback Logan Blanchard (476 yards, 2 TDs rushing) and running back Dylan Caudill (622 yards, 6 TDs).