NORWALK — The Norwalk football team seems to play the part of preseason sleeper annually. Sometimes it has made good in that role, other times it has fallen short.
Right now Norwalk coach Sean Ireland is much more ambitious. Sleeper would be the basement. He sees his team as a possible contender for a state playoff berth, which given the schedule would take what at this point looks like at least one upset.
If outsiders are skeptical, Ireland has turned his players into believers.
Norwalk coach Sean Ireland a year ago at a conditioning practice said he was expecting a good season that would set the stage for far greater accomplishments in 2019. The Bears finished 5-5, but Ireland felt some wins were left on the table.
“Nothing has changed in my mind,” Ireland said. “Last year we were two plays away from 7-3. You tell me we were 7-3 with eight returning starters on offense and eight on defense. This should be a team that hopefully we open some eyes this year.”
A big issue was the defense, which allowed nearly 33 points a game. On the other hand, the offense scored 35 or more points in four of the team’s wins. And almost everyone returns.
“We are in the same situation as last year,” quarterback Kyle Gordon said. “We have a lot of young talent. We definitely have a lot of returning starters and guys trying out for new positions. We can be as athletic as other teams in the FCIAC. There’s a lot of competition this year so we’re looking to step up our game and be ready for it.”
Scoring again should not be a problem for the Bears. They are led by Gordon, a three-year starter who is as big a threat with his legs as his arm. He rushed for 699 yards and four scores, earning All-FCIAC honors.
“I still have to get better,” Gordon said. “I’m just trying to do my thing. These guys, I know they have my back, I have their backs. We will try and get the job done and see how it goes.”
Perhaps the biggest strength is the offensive line — Sam Papp, Lorenzo Delfino, Aaron Epps, CJ Major and Chris Vitti — four returning starters and another that saw considerable playing time.
The receiving was done by committee and most are also back.
The big key is how a now veteran defense improves. The Bears had just 15 sacks — 6.5 by Papp — and five interceptions. They will need to make plays and not allow opponents to go on long drives.
“There’s three factors, special teams, offense and defense,” Gordon said. “We definitely have to have two of the three to be a good successful team. I think what we need to focus on this year is defensively and make sure we don’t give a lot of points up. We gave a lot of points up last year. As long as we play good defense and special teams we will be alright.”
Player To Watch
A.J. Robinson. “I think he is one of the best wide receivers in the league,” Ireland said. “Everybody knows about Kyle, everybody knows about Sam, but to me A.J. is going to really open eyes this year.”
Robinson had 10 receptions last year but averaged over 19 yards per catch. That ability to stretch the field will be a big asset.
A seven-win season is certainly a realistic target for the Bears, who have to play Greenwich and Daniel Hand in a three-week span, and Darien in the final game before Thanksgiving. There appear to be at this point a few pick’em games that will dictate if there is improvement on a year ago, and how much.
“We’re that young team that stuck together for a couple years and now we’re not that young team,” Ireland said. “For the first time in a long time we have a very strong senior class, a very strong junior class and a very strong sophomore class and we’re very excited about this year.”
The biggest concern is a lack of depth. The Bears are not well equipped to handle a rash of injuries. But Ireland has a strong belief in his core players and is not wavering in his expectations.
“I hope we’re fighting for a state playoff berth,” Ireland said. “I think if we stay healthy that’s something we could do. The kids have been working hard in the offseason. I think that’s a very realistic goal for us this year.”
Sept. 13 TRINITY/WRIGHT TECH 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Bridgeport Central 7 p.m.
Sept. 27 at Greenwich 7 p.m.
Oct. 4 FAIRFIELD LUDLOWE 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 DANIEL HAND 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Trumbull 7 p.m.
Nov. 1 WESTHILL 7 p.m.
Nov. 8 at Danbury 7 p.m.
Nov. 15 DARIEN 7 p.m.
Nov. 28 at Brien McMahon 10:30 a.m.