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Norwalk corrals John Muir in second half, advances to divisional finals

English: State Seal of the California Intersch...

English: State Seal of the California Interscholastic Federation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Loren Kopff

PASADENA-When the chips were down for Norwalk’s football team it went to its franchise player, senior wingback Rashaad Penny, for a boost as has been the case this entire season. But last Friday night against John Muir in a California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Southeast Division semifinal game, there was another hero that helped the Lancers extend their season.

With Norwalk trailing by a point, junior free safety Jacob Carr intercepted a pass at the Muir 45-yard line and ran it back 15 yards. Five plays later, Penny scored his fifth touchdown, a 10-yard run, to give Norwalk a 35-28 hard fought victory. The top ranked Lancers (13-0) will play third ranked La Serna (11-2) at California High, 7:00 p.m. on Saturday for the Southeast Division championship.

The Mustangs were up 28-27 and facing a third and 11 situation before Carr picked off a Dejon Williams pass. Carr had earlier thrown two interceptions himself in four attempted passes. The Lancers then took 2:25 off the clock before Penny’s go-ahead touchdown with 79 seconds remaining in the game.

“I realized that the quarterback likes to roll out and I just followed his number one receiver, which brought me to a different receiver crossing,” Carr said.

The game was sealed with 33.8 seconds left when senior cornerback Nick Fernandez deflected a Williams pass intended for Daniels Cervantes.

Norwalk was trailing 28-14 at the half despite picking up 228 yards on the ground. But the host Mustangs, the fourth ranked team in the division, benefited from a fumble that was returned for a touchdown late in the second quarter. Then on the last play of the first half, Williams danced and pranced around the backfield, imitating a young Randall Cunningham, before launching a 38-yard score to Marceles Clash to give Muir its 28-14 lead at the break.

“I think they have the most athletic quarterback,” said Norwalk head coach Jesse Ceniceros. “I wouldn’t say they’re the toughest [opponent]; they just have one heck of an athlete right there. That kid is amazing.”

Williams scored the game’s first touchdown, a 13-yard run, on Muir’s first possession of the game. But Penny tied the contest nearly midway through the second quarter by busting loose for a 79-yard jaunt up the middle. He had been limited to 19 yards on nine carries before that run.

One play following a 37-yard fumble return for a score by Tony Claxton, Penny found the end zone again after a 58-yard run. But the Mustangs scored twice in the final 1:06 of the half and still had that 14-point lead through most of the third quarter. Penny had 163 yards on 13 carries in the half but two of them were the long touchdown runs. In fact, of his game-high 26 carries, Penny was held to five yards or fewer 18 times.

“I just told him to be patient,” Ceniceros said. “It was going to open up. I saw things that were happening out there. With this offense, you have to stick with it. Sooner or later it’s going to open up.

“I’m just really proud of the kids,” he continued. “It was a team effort. It wasn’t just Penny, it wasn’t just Carr. It was a whole team effort.”

The second half was all Penny and all Lancer defense. Muir had four possessions and picked up only 37 yards on 18 plays.

“Coming into this week we knew we were going to have a challenge because Muir has a lot of speed and a lot of talent,” Carr said. “So, they just challenged our defense and that’s where we executed.”

With 4:37 left in the third quarter, Penny scored on a 91-yard run to make it 28-21. Following a Muir punt, the Lancers took over seven minutes off the clock and drew within a point after a Penny three-yard score. Cervantes would block the extra point, though. Penny ended with 310 yards while senior wingback Matthew Ortega picked up another 96 yards on 18 touches. The five rushing touchdowns by Penny are a career-high and he has now scored 13 of Norwalk’s 14 touchdowns this postseason. The defense was headlined by senior linebacker Aaron Armendarez (seven tackles) and junior cornerback Ryan McDowell (five tackles).

“It was a great experience,” Penny said of the game. “They gave it their all and they fought to the end. One thing we did was we never gave up. Coach [Ceniceros] told us going into halftime we’re a special team, we’re a special group and we can overcome 14 points. That’s something we did tonight. That was a heck of a ball club. We’ve never played anyone like them. Their quarterback was awesome.”

Norwalk, which tied a school record of 13 victories, will now participate in only its second divisional championship game. The Lancers won the 1977 Central Conference finals by defeating then-league opponent and now defunct Neff 17-13. Norwalk’s opponent, La Serna, has been to the finals the past two seasons, falling to Downey 33-25 last season and West Covina 84-21 in 2011.

However, the Lancers will be without the services of senior cornerback Daniel Moreno, who was ejected following Penny’s first touchdown for throwing a punch. Moreno entered the Muir game with 69 tackles, fifth most for the Lancers.

“He let his emotions get the best of him and he’s going to have to pay the price,” Ceniceros said. “But someone else stepped up tonight and we’ll do it next week, so we’ll be fine.”

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