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WEEK NINE FOOTBALL: Penny turns to gold as Norwalk clinches share of Suburban League title

By Loren Kopff

LA MIRADA- Norwalk senior wingback Rashaad Penny, in his biggest high school game thus far, single handily propelled the Lancers to at least a share of their first Suburban League title since 1990. Penny scored all six touchdowns and the defense forced six turnovers, five of which were recovered, as the Lancers held on for an emotional 42-35 over host La Mirada last Friday night at Goodman Stadium.

The league’s best game of the season that many had circled on their calendars once the schedules were released didn’t disappoint as Norwalk improved to 9-0 overall, 5-0 in the circuit and can clinch the league championship outright with a win against Mayfair tonight at Excelsior Stadium. Penny, who said lots of people doubted if Norwalk could win a league crown this season, rushed for 179 yards on 13 carries and scored three times on the ground. He also caught three passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns and returned a Noah Santillan interception 80 yards for a score with 5:21 left in the opening quarter as Norwalk jumped to a 14-0 lead.

“It was a hard fought game and it just came down to who wanted it more,” Penny said. “I told my team we had to line up and we had to play. We had to [force] a fumble and we made it possible. This is something we just have to keep building on.”

Norwalk had leads of 21 points four times before the Matadores stormed back in the final 13 minutes of the game. It all began with Adam Carrasco scoring from three yards out with a minute remaining in the third quarter, cutting La Mirada’s deficit to 35-21. After Penny caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Jacob Carr almost five minutes into the fourth quarter, Santillan immediately came back with a 70-yard score to Tyler Luatua.

Ethan Lopez recovered the ensuing onside kick and La Mirada rode the legs of Carrasco, who rushed four times and gained 50 yards on the drive including a seven-yard score with 5:41 left to play, making it 42-35. La Mirada’s defense then forced Norwalk to punt and its offense was driving for a potential tying touchdown. But Carrasco, who gained a game-high 285 yards on 35 carries and scored three times, fumbled at the four-yard line with 1:39 remaining. Carrasco fumbled five times in the game, losing four of them.

“Oh man, I was scared,” Penny recalled of the fourth quarter. “But I had faith and when you have faith in yourself, you know you can do something and that’s what our team did.  We came up big at the big time.”

In big games in the past, it would be Norwalk which would crack under pressure, committing numerous penalties and turning the ball over. But on this night, Norwalk did not turn the ball over once and in fact, has lost just two fumbles all season.

“It was the other way around,” said Norwalk head coach Jesse Ceniceros. “We capitalized on [the fumbles] and thank god that [La Mirada] had a bad game because if they would have held on to the ball, we would have been on the other end.

“We let them get back into the game and I think our kids learned a lot from that,” he added. “Normally they would have dropped their heads, they would have quit and we would have lost that game. But again, we have a special team and we just have to keep battling.”

La Mirada’s first three drives of the game ended with a fumble, an interception and another fumble. A third lost fumble ended the first half with the Lancers up 28-7. Penny scored on touchdown runs of nine yards, on the first play following Carrasco’s first fumble, and 37 yards in the first half. He also caught a 13-yard pass from senior quarterback Matthew Ortega late in the first half and added an 82-yard run late in the third quarter after the Matadores were held on downs at the Norwalk 18-yard line.

In addition to converting on the turnovers, Norwalk was facing major adversity as players were leaving the game one by one due to either an injury or cramping up, including Penny, who missed nearly all of the third quarter.

“It was a nightmare there for a moment,” Ceniceros said. “I had to pinch myself and say, ‘is this reality’ because anything that could have went wrong, it went wrong as far as our personnel. We had guys that got hurt. [Senior wingback] Ryan [McDowell], our quarterback Matt, Penny went down with cramps and the list goes on. It was just a testament to our kids.”

Santillan completed six passes for 203 yards and also found Luatua for a touchdown strike of 44 yards late in the first half. McDowell added 82 yards on 20 carries while Carr and Ortega combined to complete four passes in six attempts for 99 yards. On defense, senior linebacker Jose Abrina had seven tackles while senior free safety Dante Foster added five tackles.

“I just think we played a hard game,” Penny said. “This was my first time beating La Mirada and it was very emotional.”

Norwalk had not defeated La Mirada since 2008, a 41-24 triumph at La Mirada. The Lancers remained the top ranked team in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section’s Southeast Division for a ninth straight week. Only Corona Del Mar, Monrovia and Serra have been number one in their respective divisions more, and all at 11 weeks. Mission Prep and St. John Bosco have also been at the top of their divisions nine straight weeks. Norwalk is also one of 12 Southern Section teams still undefeated.

Also, Norwalk is off to its best start in school history. In 1977, the Lancers went 9-0-1 in the regular season and eventually won the Central Division championship with a 17-13 win over Neff, the team that earlier gave Norwalk the only blemish to a perfect season.

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