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Game of the Week - Norton hopes to repeat

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

In Week 9 of the 2012 season, a 6-2 Norton High School football team traveled to its rival, 7-1 Phillipsburg, in a winner-take-all playoff contest for the runner-up spot in Class 3A, District 14.

Phillipsburg, with two future NCAA Division I players in quarterback Sean Newlan and kicker Justin Juenemann, had nearly defeated powerhouse Beloit two weeks prior. The Panthers also had one of Kansas' top defenses.

Norton delivered a terrific contest and won 20-7. Jubilation occurred on the Bluejays' side well after the final buzzer sounded, and Norton coach Lucas Melvin enjoyed one of the happiest moments of his career. Phillipsburg's seniors sat stone-faced and still outside of the locker room more than 20 minutes after the game concluded.

"That was an exciting game, because everybody pretty much just didn't think that we were going to win," Melvin said. "Obviously, our guys really wanted to win that game, really prepared to win that game, and that's what made it so special."

A year later, the Panthers and Bluejays match up again, this time Thursday at Norton's Travis Field. Phillipsburg carries a 7-1 record, while Norton is 5-3. Both teams have lost to Beloit -- Phillipsburg kept the game closer -- and the runner-up spot goes to the winner. Melvin brought up last season's game a little bit this week.

While the ramifications are the same as 2012, one area has significant change: Norton's personnel. The Bluejays returned just one offensive and two defensive starters from a 7-3 squad.

Norton opened 0-2 and didn't settle on a starting quarterback until sophomore Jordan Dole earned the job over junior Kendall Miller in Week 3. Melvin said the squad has done a "tremendous job" of turning the year around.

Norton, the defending MCL champion, can split the conference title with Smith Center and Phillipsburg with a victory. The Panthers earn the crown with a win. Norton has won six of the last nine meetings between the teams, but seven are within 16 points, four within seven.

"Kids are improving, which you always want them to," Melvin said. "But there is such a discrepancy from the beginning of the season until now as far as just kids just figuring it out, kind of understanding what we are trying to do and doing a better job each week of preparing and getting better."

Norton has 51 players, one of the area's biggest rosters and a team strength. Plus, Melvin said the Bluejays have many players with similar talent levels. The result is more than 20 players seeing consistent playing time on defense.

Melvin, either an assistant or head coach with Norton since 1997, said it's probably the most Bluejays he has ever had play consistently on defense. Eight to nine defensive linemen, four to five linebackers and five to six defensive backs have rotated to help Norton stay fresh.

Sixteen players have at least 10 tackles and three others have nine. Last season, just 15 players reached 10 stops.

Sophomore linebacker Gavin Lively leads the team with 62 tackles and Melvin pointed out strong play from three seniors: lineman Cole Renner, defensive back Austin Hager and linebacker Toby Nickell (43 tackles, second-most). After a 34-13 season-opening loss to Smith Center, Norton had trouble with Goodland's passing spread and lost 30-7 in Week 2. The Bluejays made some secondary changes after the defeat and then rolled off five straight wins.

"We are still making too many mistakes, just not as many," Melvin said. "We are also playing good enough to cover up some of our mistakes."

The Bluejays have allowed just 173 points, 28th-best in the 64-team Class 3A, despite forcing just eight turnovers and having a poor minus-3 turnover margin.

Last season, Norton allowed 179 points, eighth-best in the classification, with 25 turnovers forced and a plus-9 margin.

Last week, the Bluejay defense kept Beloit, Kansas 11-man's No. 2 scoring offense, to just 354 yards and 6.6 yards per play. Overall, Beloit averages 477 yards and 8.1 yards per play. But Norton lost 46-7 because of mistakes. In the first quarter, Norton fumbled twice, once at the five-yard line and another time the Trojans returned it for a score.

"After that, I thought our defense played really well," Melvin said. "... Offensively, we just never really got anything going. There were a couple of times that we drove down and we had turnovers."

Offensively, senior running back Tanner Furbush has rushed for more than 800 yards. A fullback last season, Furbush put in more time in the summer and gained confidence. He had three carries for 33 yards in Week 1. Then, he had 19 or more carries in five of the next six contests and went over 150 yards three times.

At quarterback, Dole has displayed a stronger arm and better running ability than Miller.

Miller has seen some time at wide receiver and even led an option play for a touchdown when Dole left with a cramp against Colby three weeks ago.

"He runs hard," Melvin said of Furbush. "I feel like our offensive line has gotten better, which helps, too. He really wants to do well, and he really wants the team to succeed."