Norfolk Catholic vs Wilber-Clatonia

Norfolk Catholic vs Wilber-Clatonia in the Class C2 semifinal game Friday, November 12, 2021 in Norfolk.

Before the season started, Norfolk Catholic football coach Jeff Bellar said it would take depth and camaraderie to make a deep run into November.

The former was tested and the latter didn’t translate to huge wins early on, but once it did, the Knights were back at the level of play they’ve become known for throughout the state over the past several decades.

“We’ve really improved a lot since our first game,” Bellar said. “I think our guys have always really been close together in terms of a close-knit unit, but we have some younger guys that’ve kind of had to understand that this is varsity football.”

It’s taken some of that camaraderie for those younger players to adjust to the varsity level. The seniors on the team have been accepting of the group.

“We have five or six sophomores contributing. We have another five, six, seven, eight juniors contributing, so you need a senior class that is very accepting of youth playing with them,” Bellar said. “In football, you need those kinds of numbers to be able to get through 13 games.”

One of those underclassmen includes sophomore Carter Janssen. In his first year as the starting quarterback, he’s thrown for 1,137 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 560 yards and six touchdowns on 94 carries.

Adjustments still remain, most prominently the ability to read a defense when it shifts before the snap. Still, Bellar is impressed with how he continues to improve with each game.

“I think he’s just getting more comfortable each time he goes out and plays,” he said. “He’s an awfully talented kid so I’ve been very happy with him.”

The team struggled in a loss to Boone Central to open the season and was still trying to figure itself out even after a win over Wahoo Bishop Neumann to follow.

Then came a trip to Ord, the defending Class C2 state champion and winner of 14 straight games up to that point.

The red and white walked out with a 23-point win, beat Oakland-Craig in overtime the next week and then Wayne on the road two weeks later.

The wins were part of a regular-season schedule that did not give the Knights much time to catch their breath. Seven of their nine opponents wound up making the playoffs. However, with each win, Bellar’s squad started to believe more and more that it could do something special.

“I think our kids started — maybe after the Wayne High game — believing that ‘Hey, we’re a pretty good football team and we can play with a lot of people,’ ” he said.

That pretty good football team has now won 11 straight and needs just one more to bring home an 11th state title.

It’ll have to come against one of the most dominant teams in the state regardless of class. Fremont Bergan — led by quarterback and future Wyoming Cowboy Koa McIntyre — has won each of its games by at least three possessions. Bergan has won 24 of its last 25 dating back to last season and is looking for their first title since 1979 and second ever.

“He can throw the ball effectively, probably an even stronger runner,” Bellar said of McIntyre. “And then with the speed that he has, if we miss and he gets in the open, he’s probably going to the end zone.”

That speed is also apparent on the defensive side of the ball. With the way it’s aligned at each level and the athleticism each player has, it can be hard to get loose for a big gain.

“Their three defensive backs have such great speed that they could cover up if there’s a gap,” Bellar said. “Maybe they miss trying to attack you somewhere and you get in the open field. Well you don’t make it that far because they run so well.”

Fundamentals will be huge on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Knights will need to cut back on turning the ball over, something they’ve struggled with at times this year.

“We will have to play near-perfect to win this football game, and that’s what we’re going to strive for,” Bellar said. “Those are just challenges when you do.”

Whatever the scoreboard may say at the final whistle, this team has done something that all of the players and coaches have strived for since the first practice: Returning to the level of play that’s become so prominent on West Madison Avenue.

“We’re kind of restored back to where we want to be in terms of saying ‘Hey, they’re kind of a team that can get things done,’ ” Bellar said. “Our kids really wanted that this year. I think our coaching staff wanted that. So that’s been very positive for us.”

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