By CHRIS EASTERLING
Independent sports editor
The Nordonia team that arrives at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium tonight for a Division II first-round playoff game, in many ways, resembles the one that was here a year ago.
Many of the players are the same. The coaching staff is the same. And, obviously, the opponent — Massillon — is the same.
But second-year head coach Jeff Fox believes there is a huge difference between the team that was beaten 63-34 by the Tigers last year and the one that will try to tame them tonight.
“We actually believe we can, and have made that a goal to make a run in the playoffs,” said Fox, whose team will bring an 8-2 mark to Massillon. “Last year, just being here was an accomplishment. This year, we really set goals that go into the mindset that we’re ready to make the plays and prepare to win see what we can do to achieve the goal of winning a state championship.”
Whether the Knights can close the gap between themselves and Massillon remains to be seen. But Fox believes his team has plenty of reasons to feel confident as it returns to the site where last season ended.
And much of that is because of that blowout loss a year ago. Instead of getting their first taste of the playoffs at one of the most famous sites in Ohio high school football, most of the Nordonia players should already be well acquainted with their surroundings.
“It can’t hurt,” Fox said. “The quicker our team realizes that we’re just playing football and the field is a 100 yards long, and realize they’re high school kids too, then we’ll be in great position. We’re playing against a team equal, in theory, to us. I think our team’s much better prepared to do that this year.”
A year ago, Nordonia in many ways was just happy to be in the playoffs. The Knights, in Fox’s first season, turned themselves around from a 2-8 record in 2011 to be 7-3 before losing to the eventual regional runner-up Tigers.
This year, with five offensive and four defensive starters returning, Nordonia’s quest wasn’t just to get back to Week 11.
“We had great expectations,” Fox said. “We expected to be in the playoffs. We expect to be able to make some noise in the playoffs. I think that’s a big perception change.”
Many of those same players who were on the field for last year’s playoff game have grown even more in their second season in Fox’s system. Denzel Ward and Alex Alders, to give two examples, were merely sophomores a year ago adjusting to life at the varsity level.
This year, those two aren’t just another season older, but have also blossomed into two of Nordonia’s top two-way players. They are the leading receivers on offense, while both also are key to the Knights’ secondary on defense, while providing plenty of plays in the return game as well.
“Defensively is probably, honestly, where most of them have the ticket at the next level,” Fox said. “Denzel has really turned himself into a lock-down corner, where he’s made a ton of plays. Alex, at strong safety, he’s gotten that much more bigger and stronger with another year of maturity, and he’s become a run-stopping type of safety, in addition to his athletic ability and his play-making ability.”
One of the biggest keys for Nordonia has been someone who wasn’t a part of last year’s playoff team. Junior quarterback David Murray has taken over the reins of the offense and has thrown for 2,251 yards and 30 touchdowns.
“We run this no-huddle spread offense, so it puts a lot on a quarterback,” Fox said. “We put him in a lot of situations, and each and every week he learns something new. He’s evolved and he’s a kid who can throw a football and has the physical talents to do it.”
Where Nordonia also mimics last year’s team, though, is in an area Fox wishes wasn’t the case. For the second year in a row, the Knights head to Massillon after losses to Highland and Wadsworth to end the regular season.
The frustrating part for Fox is the fact opportunities existed in both games for his team to win. Opportunities that he knows his team can’t miss tonight if he has eyes on changing the outcome.
“Against two really great teams the last two weeks, we’ve had part of that game where we’ve looked outstanding,” Fox said. “We’ve also had parts where we’ve had some momentum swings that have gone the other way. We’re learning to hopefully bounce back from some of those situations and hopefully put it all together this week against Massillon.”
Reach Chris at 330-775-1128
On Twitter: @ceasterlingINDE