This is a new feeling for Norwalk.
The names and faces are familiar – coach Paul Patterson has 13 returning starters in his 16th season – and so is playing underdog to Pella on Friday night.
But a No. 3 ranking in Class 3A and three impressive wins to start the year and expectations egged on by an expanding community before hosting No. 1? The Warriors are experiencing those for the first time.
“We’re trying to treat it the same as we would for any other week or opponent,” said Norwalk junior quarterback Brady Brandsfield, “but obviously it’s pretty exciting right now.”
Norwalk’s football history has been consistently fine, never great.
The suburb south of Des Moines has made 10 playoff appearances: six have come since 2008. A first-round win in 2010 was the first postseason victory since 1992. The Warriors have never gotten out of the second round, with last season’s 59-31 rout at Creston serving as the most recent loss.
Patterson is determined to take the talent available in what is now 3A’s second-largest school by enrollment to reach that next level.
“We’ve been trying to get our mindset correct,” Patterson said. “We’re trying to get rid of some words that have been around Norwalk for a long time and we’re trying to replace them with some better words.
“We’re trying to get rid of ‘hope’ and ‘believe.’ They are passive words. When something doesn’t go your way, where’s that hope and belief? We’re trying to replace with ‘I know.'”
Brandsfield became a focal point of the program’s development, taking over duties as a freshman signal-caller in the spread offense on an incredibly deep roster. He wasn’t alone, as young players at any position were bumped up to varsity if they could contribute to Patterson’s platoon system.
Growing pains would be worth it if they led Norwalk to new heights.
Upsetting defending champion Pella (3-0) at home would have to qualify.
“Our preparation has been a lot better the last few weeks than in the past,” Brandsfield said. “It helps that our team unity has gotten better year after year.”
Norwalk avenged last season’s two losses to Creston in the season opener, and Brandsfield threw five touchdown passes to senior Tyler Schamel the next week at Winterset. Last week’s 23-16 Homecoming win over Carlisle required a last-minute touchdown drive, which tested the mettle of a team coming off heads-or-tails seasons that finished 6-5 and 5-5.
“Ups and downs are going to happen, no matter what happens in the game, but how we react to downs is going to be how we finish football games,” Patterson said.
Creating a 2015 contender hasn’t been an entirely offensive endeavor – Brandsfield has already thrown five interceptions after throw six all last season – as the defense is strong and sizable.
All-district defensive end Sonny Onken is listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, while the top tackler is Logan Foetisch, a 6-4 senior linebacker. The unit has already forced 11 turnovers and is allowing just 12 points per game against three teams that made the playoffs last year.
Pella is a different proposition. The top-ranked Dutch have won 16 straight games and already appear to be in playoff form with a roster as deep as and more proven than Norwalk’s. Both teams have been dealt major injuries: Pella’s star linebacker Austin Schulte is out for the season with a knee injury, while Norwalk is missing Schamel (concussion) and running back Coby Klocko.
This Warrior squad could also bear a slight resemblance to the 2011 unit, which went 9-2, but was ultimately eliminated by Pella, or the 2012 team which started 6-0 and lost to, yes, Pella.
“We’ve still got to get our program to a place where we understand what ‘learned helplessness’ is and we’ve got to understand our way out of learned helplessness,” Patterson said.
“It’s hard to compare one team to another team, but we love the kids that we’re working with right now and they are an absolutely awesome group of young men.”
That history, or lack of it, won’t scare the Warriors. They’ve waited too long to get this big game and back down now.