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CIF SS Southeast Championship: Norwalk’s bid for an undefeated championship season foiled by La Serna on final play

By Loren Kopff

 

FULLERTON-The old adage of whoever has the ball last will most likely win hurt Norwalk’s football team at the worst possible time. On the last play of the second overtime, La Serna quarterback Frankie Palmer scrambled out of the pocket and found Matthew Rosales at the near right corner of the end zone for a game-winning 19-yard touchdown to beat Norwalk 41-38 in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Southeast Division championship game last Saturday night at Titan Stadium on the California State University, Fullerton campus.

It marked the only loss in 14 games this season for top ranked Norwalk, which was seeking its first CIF football title since 1977 and second in school history. Norwalk had taken a 29-21 lead with 7:10 left in regulation after senior wingback Rashaad Penny busted loose for a 61-yard score and was looking to put the game away a little over four minutes later.

But La Serna’s Tony Ceron blocked an attempted 21-yard field goal by senior Jorge Perez, and the pigskin was scooped up by Kevin Ramos who returned 75 yards the other way for a touchdown. Palmer would add a two-point conversion to tie the game at 29-29 with 2:57 left in regulation. It was the only touchdown third ranked La Serna would score in the second half. But even that couldn’t prevent the Suburban League champion Lancers from making their share of mistakes, much to the chagrin of head coach Jesse Ceniceros.

Norwalk had a critical roughing the kicker penalty called late in the second quarter that gave La Serna new life at the eight-yard line where Ramos went in to tie the contest at 14-14. Then with 47 seconds left in the first half, a bad snap on an attempted punt, which resulted in a 32-yard loss, gave La Serna new life at the Norwalk 10-yard line. Two plays later, Palmer scored from six yards out as La Serna owned a 21-14 halftime lead.

In overtime, after junior quarterback Jacob Carr had given his team a 35-29 lead with a one-yard run, Perez’ extra point went wide right. However, La Serna couldn’t take advantage after Palmer scored from two yards out because its extra point was short.

But one play into Norwalk’s second overtime possession, a holding penalty moved the purple and gold back 15 yards and despite advancing to the three-yard line, Ceniceros opted to go for a 21-yard field goal attempt.

“You would ultimately love to pound it in,” Ceniceros said. “But you have to get some points on the board.

“There was a whole lot of should have, could have, would have, and I’m sure [Nick Saban] from Alabama was thinking the same thing I was thinking now,” he continued. “It’s easy for other people to say, ‘well, he could have done that’. But when it’s a game-time situation, you try to look what’s for the best interest in your team. That’s the way the ball bounces.”

Norwalk ended a 6:10 drive to begin the game when Carr threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Penny on fourth and nine. However, a bad snap prevented Norwalk from adding the extra point. Palmer and his team quickly responded and took a 7-6 lead a little over two and a half minutes later. The Lancers regained the lead midway through the second quarter when Penny sneaked in from a yard out with sophomore wingback Christopher Walker adding the two-point conversion.

But as was the case in the semifinal game against John Muir, Penny was contained throughout the first three quarters. Penny had 23 yards on 17 carries entering the fourth quarter and finished the game with 123 yards on 27 touches. His longest gains were 14, 61 and 13 yards and he was held to less than five yards 19 times. He still score scored four touchdowns in the game and found the end zone 17 times in four postseason games.

“I just think Penny wasn’t himself today,” Ceniceros said. “I don’t know what it was but he just wasn’t himself. He dropped some key passes that would have been touchdowns any other time. We relied on him all season and he’s human. He’s not going to be able to do everything.”

After senior Samuel Gomez recovered a fumble three plays into the second half, Norwalk regained the lead when Carr threw an 18-yard pass to Penny. Of Carr’s 11 touchdown passes this season, 10 have gone to Penny. Carr then recovered from a high snap to run in the two-point conversion and a 22-21 lead with 7:50 left in the third quarter.

Norwalk’s defense seemed to hold La Serna in check throughout most of the second half, holding Palmer to 15 yards on 11 carries since halftime and forcing him to throw 10 incomplete passes in 11 attempts during one stretch in the second half. Palmer would finish the game completing 10 passes for 155 yards and gained another 92 yards on the ground with three touchdowns.

“He’s a great quarterback; a great athlete,” Ceniceros said. “I just think we made too many mistakes. There’s nothing more. We held them when we had to hold them. We got the ball back when we had to get the ball back. But we just made some big mistakes.”

Carr completed four of 11 passes for 111 yards but was intercepted twice. Senior wingback Matthew Ortega added 57 yards on 15 carries and Walker pitched in with 39 yards on 10 touches.

Despite the loss, this will go down as one of the best, if not the best, season in Norwalk High football history. Penny wrapped up his senior campaign with over 2,500 rushing yards and scored a total of 52 touchdowns. The Norwalk side of Titan Stadium was packed as the fans braved the mid-40 degree temperatures and although Norwalk graduates 22 players from a roster of 42, this season’s team left a legacy for future Norwalk squads.

“They brought a community together,” Ceniceros said. “You could see by the [people in the] stands. They brought pride and it wasn’t there for a long time.”