COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Norwalk fans were in the end zone of the Schottenstein Center Saturday morning, all the way to the very top row.
Worst seats in the house.
Nobody seemed to care. Nobody was using the actual seat, anyway.
The party started shortly after the 10:30 a.m. tipoff of the Div. II state championship team. Norwalk was the aggressor early and though defending state champion Columbus Bishop Watterson rallied throughout the fourth quarter, the Truckers never lost the lead, winning 65-58.
The celebration on the floor and in the stands was really wild. Tonight in Norwalk might be the same.
"It’s a great day to be a Trucker," Norwalk coach Steve Gray said.
Watterson’s all-senior starting five and big-game experience were no match for Norwalk point guard Ben Haraway, who went for 29 points, 3 assists and blocked 3 shots. He went 15-of-19 at the free throw line and almost always had the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter as Watterson rallied and Norwalk was playing against both the Eagles and the clock.
The lead was cut to four twice but never closer. 6’5 Jeff Thomas, Norwalk’s tallest player, had 18 points and 10 rebounds and generally had the ball in the instances when Haraway did not.
"Oh, that was a long fourth quarter," Thomas said. "I had a feeling we had this one in the bag, but you can never count on it. We still had to play defense, still had to rebound."
This Norwalk team had seven seniors and finishes 28-1, with 76 wins over the last three seasons. The Truckers had played in Div. I the last two years and had run into to competition too tall — literally — along the way. Last year, Norwalk lost to Toledo Whitmer and Nigel Hayes, now playing for Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament.
"My greatest fear was that our lack of size would catch up to us," Gray said. "But these kids were just great. I’ve said all along you win with players. These guys have been good now for three years."
When the discussion turned to strategy against Watterson’s deliberate attack and the Eagles’ own outstanding point guard, Cody Calhoun, Gray joked that "we put the ball in Benny’s hands. I thought that was really, really smart of us."
Simple worked because Haraway played his best game with 14,642 watching.
Gray told the story of first watching Haraway at an open gym as an eighth grader, seeing a talented player he wasn’t sure was ready for the varsity level as a ninth grader. He ended up playing on that level, though, setting forth a long-term plan that ended with the aforementioned wild celebration on Saturday.
Thomas is headed to Georgia State, while Haraway is signed at Div. II Malone University in Canton — "and Malone got a steal," Gray said.
The Truckers return home as heroes — Norwalk was the only first-time participant in this year’s state tournament — and will "sign even more autographs" than they did when all seven seniors stopped by the local youth league’s banquet a couple of weeks ago.
This was all on board, all in to the nervous end as Calhoun and Watterson kept coming back on Saturday.
Finally, with the lead at five and Norwalk headed to the foul line in the final 10 seconds, Thomas pumped his fists towards the Norwalk crowd. Haraway never looked fazed on the floor but couldn’t quit smiling afterwards.
"He’s just a happy guy," Gray said of Haraway. "Always. Not just today."
When OHSAA Commissioner Dan Ross presented the Norwalk players the trophy on the floor after the game, there was almost a wrestling match as they all tried to get both hands on it.