Now, as demonstrated by Norwell's five-game winning streak and a 45-28 win over Columbia City in a Class 4A Sectional 20 opener Friday night, the Knights have flipped the script completely.
“Winning can be contagious; winning can be a habit,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, so can losing. We got into a spell the last couple years where we were finding ways to lose. Now we're finding ways, hopefully, to win.”
Norwell (5-5) will play at Jay County (7-3) in the sectional semifinal next Friday.
After Norwell built a 31-0 lead early in the fourth quarter against Columbia City, things turned wild in the fourth quarter. The teams combined for 42 points in the final 7:47, with Columbia City pulling within 38-28 at one point. But in the playoffs, of course, a win is a win.
How did Norwell go from 0-5 and a team everyone expected to beat into a 5-5 team no one's too eager to play?
Columbia City coach Randy Hudgins, whose team lost to Norwell for the second-straight week, agrees with the idea that winning and strong play becomes contagious.
“You get a couple good wins, the confidence is up,” Hudgins said. “They have some good skill players. (Piercen) Harnish is very skilled and they've figured out ways to build around him. They're playing outstanding defense, not turning the ball over and just playing good solid football.”
Harnish, the younger brother of Indianapolis Colts' Chandler Harnish, is a third-year starter as a junior. But while he began his career as a linebacker, he's now improved his play as a running quarterback who can throw to keep teams off balance.
Harnish carried 20 times for 176 yards and two touchdowns and completed 7-of-14 passes for 90 yards and a score. But the Knights have developed enough playmakers around Harnish to keep teams honest.
Norwell junior Adam Nahrwold rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown, senior Reid Jutte rushed for 55 yards and junior Reggie Hayes threw a touchdown pass and caught a touchdown pass. Harnish had two picks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on defense, with juniors Andrew Oakes and Ashton McCune leading the team in tackles.
“Our offense has been doing great,” senior running back Reid Jutte said. “Our linemen are blocking a lot better and keeping us going inside. Piercen is a good runner, so we can do the option. Piercen can run or I can run or Will (Gerber). Nahrwold and Will are good fullbacks. Our receivers, Reggie and (Nate) Burrows, can catch. So we've got a lot of good things there.”
Norwell's defense, also headed by Harnish, got the team going Friday, with Gerber opening the scoring on a 35-yard interception return touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
Harnish followed that with an interception on Columbia City's next possession, and Hayes threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Burrows on a wide-receiver reverse for a 14-0 lead.
“You have to have those (trick) plays up your sleeve,” Miller said. “I'd rather line up and run over you, 12 plays, 90 yards up the middle. But you have to have a little bit of everything. Some nights, you need those plays and tonight we needed them.”
That reverse pass came in handy later in the game when Harnish faked the reverse to Hayes, kept the ball and ran 46 yards to finally seal the win.
Columbia City (3-7) came back with a couple of onside-kick recoveries, a pair of touchdown passes from Trevor Bolt to Dayne Asplund and two short Bolt touchdown runs.
“That's a testament to the kids we have and the character we have to compete and never give up,” Hudgins said. “Hats off to Norwell. Coach Miller had them ready to play. They're a very good team and I think they're a force to be reckoned with in the sectional.”
Miller said the furious ending put a little damper on what had been a dominant performance through three quarters, but pointed out the Knights nonetheless found a way to win.
“It's confidence, I'd say,” Gerber said. “We're playing our responsibilities and doing what we're supposed to do to keep on winning.”