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By Loren Kopff
Third place in the Suburban League and a potential playoff spot was on the line when Artesia High visited Norwalk High last Friday night at Excelsior Stadium. The game was supposed to feature two of the dynamic running backs in the league-Norwalk senior Chris Walker and junior Jordan Benoit of Artesia.
However, Walker was sidelined with an injury and Benoit, who has accounted for 76 percent of the Pioneers’ touchdowns this season, was running at 75 percent and was in action for just a few plays at the beginning of the game before he became a spectator the rest of the night. Without Benoit, the Pioneers were in a state of flux and the Lancers used their depth to roll past Artesia 48-0 on homecoming night.
Norwalk improved to 3-5 overall and 2-2 in league, having outscored its last two opponents by a combined score of 97-7. Eight different players carried the ball for Norwalk, which rushed for 346 yards on 22 carries. However, no one reached triple digits in the yardage department.
“A lot of players have developed lately and we’ve been getting better in practices,” said Norwalk first-year head coach Otis Harrison. “When you look around, we do have several guys that are capable of playing. We’ve just been very fortunate in that we’ve lifted and worked out extremely hard. A couple of guys who played and played very well tonight…this is their first night on varsity.”
“We had [Benoit] in there in the beginning for a couple of plays,” said Artesia head coach Joe Veach. “We were going to use him sparingly and then the score just got out of hand. I’m not going to use him when it’s out of hand.”
Benoit’s replacement, freshman Travys Davis recovered a fumble on a muffed punt two minutes into the game to give Artesia (3-6, 2-3) some early momentum. But after junior wide receiver Rian Hughing hauled in a 19-yard reception on third and eight to put the Pioneers at the Norwalk 22-yard line, a fumble on what was supposed to be a shovel pass was recovered by Norwalk senior lineman Jesse Lotts. Two plays later junior running back Jordan Thomas scored from two yards out, which came after a 75-yard jaunt from sophomore fullback Daniel Faamatau. The turnover by the Pioneers would be the first of four in the first half as Norwalk scored on all four first half offensive possessions plus a 75-yard pick six from Faamatau with 8:15 left in the half, which made the score 27-0.
“You can’t turn the ball over and we got a really, really bad call in the beginning when it was 0-0,” Veach said. “We had a shovel pass that they called a fumble and I had five officials all tell me that it’s no one’s job to watch the quarterback. That’s why I called a timeout. But you have to take care of the football and we didn’t. When you lose the turnover battle, you’re probably going to lose the game.”
The Lancers went up 13-0 late in the opening stanza on a one-yard sneak from senior quarterback Ausencio Navarro and increased their score following a 41-yard run from Brown with 23.1 seconds left. Brown added a one-yard run with 37.6 seconds left in the half as the hosts held a commanding 34-0 lead at the break. By now, Norwalk already had 232 yards on the ground while Artesia was held to 73 yards of total offense with senior quarterback Todd Fahey completing seven of 13 passes for 67 yards.
“We came out this week saying we wanted to try to throw the ball a little bit more just because I think the last few weeks we’ve just been too one dimensional in running, running, running,” Veach said. “Obviously we didn’t do a good job of it. We didn’t protect well enough.”
Artesia’s passing game was the only thing remotely close to working on this night as the Pioneers rushed for three yards on 27 carries without Benoit in action. Sophomore running back Xavier Yoakum picked up 21 yards on six carries while Davis averaged virtually a yard for each of his 14 carries.
“Benoit is explosive,” Harrison commented. “Artesia is well-coached first of all. Coach Veach does a heck of a job. I’ve mentioned to some of my coaches that I wanted to go over there and just kind of shadow him in the offseason because I bet that they do an excellent job of coaching. I have no problem with learning from people and I think he does a great job over there.”
The last two touchdowns came in the third quarter-a 52-yard run from sophomore running back Josh Martinez and a 20-yard run from Thomas, both of which came within three minutes of each other. Brown led the Lancers with 97 yards on eight carries while Martinez (58 yards on two carries), sophomore halfback Billy Joseph Moore (54 yards on two carries) and Thomas (47 yards on five carries) followed Brown’s production.
“We were locked in from [last] Saturday morning,” Harrison said. “We’ve been locked in on this game and just understanding that we have to go 3-0 right now. This is a playoff environment. I’m sure most of our players will tell you I haven’t been the greatest personality to be around this last week.”
“They have really good athletes over there and I think we have a running back that is as good as most running backs in our league,” Veach said. “But if he goes down, we don’t have a whole lot behind him whereas other teams have a second and a third. We’re going to a freshman back there and the guy after that is a sophomore.”
The Lancers even ushered in freshman Brionne Penny to take some snaps from under center. Penny is the youngest of four siblings to have come through the Norwalk program with the other three having had great success in the backfield over the past five-plus seasons.
“He’s going to be the quarterback of the future and the one thing I wanted to try to avoid was nerves this time next year,” Harrison said. “At least he’s familiar now with game time prep. It’s really almost second nature for him. If I thought he was going to be a great tailback, I would put him there because the history precedes itself.”
Norwalk will visit Bellflower High and can officially clinch a playoff berth with a victory while Artesia has tonight off before hosting Bellflower in Nov. 6 in the season finale.
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