NORTON — As the heat fails to let up on a sweltering mid-August night, the town of Norton becomes a buzz. Just two blocks north of Norton Community High School, four streets surround a practice field that houses the Bluejays.
Even with the temperature flirting with 95 degrees after the drive home from work, the city’s tenants do not resort to the swift feeling of a freshly air conditioned home. Instead, they dig up their lawn chairs and promptly place them on their front porches or, for some, in their driveways.
They don’t care to watch the beginning of a Kansas City Royals game or the 6 o’clock newscast. The Norton Bluejays are the hottest team in town and the people of Norton are well aware of what could possibly lie ahead in 2015.
“It’s mostly just coming from all the hard work we put in over the summer and realizing how good we can be if we all work at it,” senior fullback Jordan Dole said. “Last year, halfway through the season, we realized that if we wanna be good, it has to be in all of our mindsets — we have to believe it. That’s mostly what we’re coming off right now; believing ourselves.”
After a 5-4 season in 2013, the arrival of Jace Ruder at quarterback and emergence of Dole and Jacob Green, along with rare talents on both sides of the ball, led the Bluejays to a five-win improvement in 2014. A perfect 10-0 regular season record was spoiled by a first round loss to eventual 3A runner-up Scott City.
“Usually coming off a successful season like that, you’re gonna have to try to top that,” Green said. “That’s usually our goal. Our goal is to always win MCL (Mid-Continent League) but we wanna get to the next level from last year and we have the capability this year.”
The numbers might not return, but the talent does. Green, a junior lineman, was the HDN Defensive Player of the Year last season with 86 tackles and 22 tackles for loss for the fifth-best scoring defense in 3A. Dole was also a HDN Super 11 selection after racking up 965 yards and 18 scored on 113 carries. After Ruder went down in Week 4 with a collarbone injury, he fell back into the role he used to own under center and completed 33 of 84 passes for 512 yards, including seven touchdowns to four interceptions.
The Bluejays also return senior Gavin Lively, who led the team with 1,235 all-purpose yards. Even with the talent returning for the reigning MCL champion, just five offensive starters are back for Norton opposite of four defensive starters, and the lack of size returning has brought a new approach to the Bluejays’ training.
“Mostly what we’ve been working on is just our quickness,” Dole said. “We don’t have as big of size as we did last year but we have some kids that are just as big coming up and it’s just a matter of getting their mindset ready to go to step up in a starting position.”
Green added, saying that despite the team’s size decreasing, “as long as you have the heart and the will, anything can be done. I think we have that and we have the guys that can get that done.”
The heart and will is seen on the practice field. Decade-long head coach Lucas Melvin — who is coming off his most successful season — preaches focus and intensity on a hot afternoon after school and pushes his players to their limits.
The team starts with a 10-minute takeaway circuit which focuses on stripping the ball, scooping a fumble and intercepting the opponent. Even with last year’s strides, the Bluejays had a turnover margin of just plus-two. If that stat can improve in 2015, Melvin see’s his team as moving another step in the right direction.
“We always like turnovers,” Melvin said. “In the last two years, we haven’t been too good at getting them and we’ve been too good at giving them. We have to do some things better in that area but we gotta get better in all areas.
“Turnovers is a big part of it — we had a lot of turnovers against Scott City last year — and just being mentally and physically tougher.”
In the first round of the playoffs, Norton threw three interceptions and lost two fumbles and could not take the ball away. On the other hand, Scott City did not give the ball away and finished 2014 with a plus-28 turnover margin.
But with the perennial powerhouse reloading much of the same way as Norton, though Scott City lost many of their top playmakers, the Bluejays have confidence they can build on last season and make a deeper run into the playoffs.
“It’s mostly just coming from all the hard work we put in over the summer and realizing how good we can be if we all work at it,” Dole said of the team’s intensity and confidence. “Last year, halfway through the season, we realized that if we wanna be good, it has to be in all of our mindsets — we have to believe it. That’s mostly what we’re coming off right now; believing ourselves.”
“Usually coming off a successful season like that, you’re gonna have to try to top that,” Green added. “That’s usually our goal. Our goal is to always win MCL but we wanna get to the next level from last year and we have the capability this year. … I think we do (have the talent). Even for any team with any kind of talent, you gotta work for it. This team’s gonna have to work for it and we will, we will.”
With Ruder back under center, the dual-threat quarterback provides even more versatility to the stat-stuffing offense. With Dole able to return to the full-time fullback and with Lively returning, Ruder can showcase the arm that has Division I schools keeping an eye on him.
In his short-lived freshman season, Ruder was 26 of 41 for 580 yards and seven scores. He was also the team’s kicker, averaging 45.2 yards on kickoffs and 41.8 yards on six punts. However, he was forced to watch the Bluejays’ run to the playoffs from the sideline, which has him itching to return to the field Friday against Ellis.
“It was painful at first, for sure. It was real painful just not being able to play the game that I love,” Ruder said. “But as the season went on, I started loving watching my other brothers play the game and be successful at it. By the end of the season, it still wasn’t very fun of course, you know, but it came along. What matters now is that I’m better.
“… It’s gonna be the best feeling ever. I’m really excited. I know my teammates are excited. We’re ready to go out there Friday night and get that win.”
In preparation for this season what surely will become a recruitment process that heats up, Ruder took his talents to skills camps at Southern California (USC) and Washington State, both which were held in Los Angeles. With his quarterback coach by his side, he also spent a week at Kanakuk, a Christian sports camp, and attended the junior elite camp at the University of Minnesota.
But when Ruder went down, it was Dole to step in and lead the team. After having been the Bluejays’ starter, Dole gave way to Ruder, a freshman last season, and made the move to fullback. When the time called, he took the reins of the offense without question and showed his dedication to the team.
“That’s just being an awesome teammate right there,” Ruder said. “Being willing to go to fullback then back to quarterback — he really enjoyed fullback and being able to hit kids every play — but when I went down, he was willing enough to back into quarterback and he did an awesome job at leading the team to its 10 wins.
“It really just shows how much of a ‘I’m third’ person he is — you know, God first, others second. He really set a good example for that.”
“That was definitely a team thing,” Melvin added. “You know, Jace went down. That’s never fun. You hate for him — you hate for anyone — to get hurt. … Jordan stepped up and played and did a great job. The whole reason he was able to have that kind of success is we had 10 other guys on the field with him who were busting their butt and doing well.”
From that moment on, the returners have built a bond that carried through long summer days of work together. Ruder said the team would meet in the morning and lift together and return for night runs as a team and would not take any days off when given to them by Melvin.
With the hard work put in in the summer to be in top shape for a grueling season against the MCL, Ruder said the team realizes it needs to take every moment as an opportunity to get better.
“I think what we need to every day is just keep that fire in us, running around all the time, no walking,” Ruder said. “Just working as hard as we can every moment we get because we don’t get a whole lot of time to practice until the first game or throughout the season, so we need to take every chance we get.”
With it being some player’s last year of high school football, such as Dole, he hopes to use his hard work as an example of never taking a play off.
“It kinda sucks knowing that it’s going to be my last year,” Dole said. “But at the same time, it’s kind of an opportunity for me to show these young guys what I’ve learned all these four years, to let them know that it goes by quick and l gotta tell them that every play matters, no matter what.”
With a relentless work ethic and coming together as a team, Ruder has the feeling this team can make it to the promise land for the first time since 1986.
“Like any other kid, I think we just dream of winning a state championship, and I think we do have the potential to do that,” Ruder said. “It’s gonna take a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication and the help of God, you know. I think we have the potential to do it, we just gotta keep working hard.”