Kearsarge senior Justin Norris faced stiff competition in the battle to be named the region’s top player. John Stark’s Drew McQuarrie, Bow’s Nate Alford, Bishop Brady’s Richard Sullivan and Inter-Lakes’s Andrew Brothers all had special football seasons. But when you gain 17.5 yards a carry and you average four touchdowns and 265.4 yards per game like Norris did, the honors have to follow.
Norris put up some good numbers as a sophomore (78 carries, 523 yards, one touchdown) and a took a leap as a junior (122 carries, 1,106 yards, 14 touchdowns). This year the leap was rocket-fueled as Norris ran for 2,123 yards and 32 touchdowns on 121 rushes, leading the Cougars to a 5-3 record.
The statistics ballooned, in part, because Kearsarge moved down from Division II to D-III this season. But there’s also no doubt Norris raised his game to another level, and he had to do it behind an undersized offensive line without a returning starter.
“I always find that jump from junior year to senior year is huge for kids, and it was for Justin. This year he would take what would have been a 20- or 30-yard run and turn it into a 70- or 80-yard run,” Kearsarge Coach Zach Matthews said. “I really don’t want to talk down about any of our opponents, but at times he looked like a man among boys.”
Norris said one difference this year was a preseason training routine that was more focused on running. That change seemed to improve the health of his hips, which he needed wrapped for every game before this season. But the hips never got wrapped this year and they never bothered him.
Kearsarge started the season with a 21-14 loss to Newport, a game that, in hindsight, kept the Cougars out of the D-III playoffs. They were trailing Franklin by three touchdowns early in the second game when Matthews made a change to the offense, going to a direct-snap look reminiscent of a single-wing or “Wildcat.”
The change worked as Kearsarge came back for 47-34 win and Norris, who took the majority of those direct snaps, finished with 381 yards and six touchdowns on 21 carries. The Cougars, and Norris, kept rolling with the new offense the next two weeks – a 57-14 win against Fall Mountain where Norris ran for 206 yards and three touchdowns on just five carries, and a 57-34 win against Newfound where he ran for 448 yards and eight touchdowns on 17 carries.
“I would just get a snap and take off through the hole,” Norris said. “We didn’t have big guys blocking, but we had faster guys, so that worked to our advantage.”
Norris made sure it worked to their advantage with his quickness, vision and speed, but also with his leadership.
“He had to take some lumps early in the season when we were getting our feet underneath us up front,” Matthew said, “but I thought he was great at staying with those guys and believing in them and encouraging them to keep doing their job and that was big. I think we could have lost some of those young kids if you had a running back back there screaming at them.”