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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
5-6 overall last season, 4-2 in the Suburban League, third place, lost to Burbank Burroughs High 16-9 in the Southeast Division first round playoffs
37-22 overall last five seasons
Head coach: Otis Harrison (second season, 5-6)
Lost 16 seniors out of 45 players from 2015 opening day roster
Last time missed the playoffs: 2006
Aug. 26 @ El Rancho (1-9 overall last season)
Sept. 2 Long Beach Jordan (3-8)
Sept. 9 @ Bell Gardens (6-4-1)
Sept. 16 @ Dominguez (8-4)
Sept. 23 @ John Glenn (0-10)
Sept. 30 La Mirada (13-3)
Oct. 7 @ Mayfair (7-4)
Oct. 14 Cerritos (1-8)
Oct. 21 BYE
Oct. 28 @ Artesia (3-7)
Nov. 4 Bellflower (4-6)
Without a doubt, head coach Otis Harrison wished he had had more wins in his first season as Norwalk High’s head coach. But a 1-5 start to the season, including losing the first two Suburban League games, was too much to overcome for a shot of a league title or second place. Still, Norwalk played more than 10 games for the ninth straight season and now with more than a full year with the team, Harrison has his eyes set on a very special season.
“It was a great thing, getting the job, but getting it May, you’re limited with the amount of time that you have,” Harrison said. “The biggest benefit for us this year was the offseason. The worst thing that we had happened to us last year was no offseason. It was very hard for the guys to get used to the different culture. It was a new way of living for a lot of those guys out there.”
When last season had concluded following a California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Southeast Division loss to Burbank Burroughs High, Harrison felt there was a big difference in the way the players had welcomed him in after seeing Jesse Ceniceros run the program the previous seven seasons. He says the players are all independent thinkers who understand what the coaches are trying to accomplish and that they are also responsible.
“These guys are not fearful of hard work,” he added. “There are no excuses. Even when they miss a practice, they know they have to do their extra conditioning. We have to watch them very little.”
Sophomore Brionne Penny replaces the graduated Ausencio Navarro as the new quarterback and brings a different dimension to the passing game. Penny is the youngest of four brothers in the family with his older siblings-Robert (2006-2007), Elijhaa (2008-2010) and Rashaad (2011-2013)-having been outstanding running backs. Most recently, the Lancers have been primarily a running team, operating the double wing. But look for some changes in the offense this season.
“First of all, just to say we have Brionne as a quarterback is to almost say like there’s a choice,” Harrison said. “He has more quarterback habits and tendencies than a lot of people who I have met in my lifetime. Quarterbacks have certain characteristics. Talent is cool, but to care and not have a problem with being available to your coaches all the time because you are a coach on the football field, that’s priceless. This guy does a lot of things automatic. He practices snaps under his bed at home. He really does. He’s a joy every time I see him.”
Penny, who will wear #22 just like his three brothers before him, will be backed up by junior A. J. Morales. He will spend most of the season on the junior varsity team but travel with the varsity squad on Friday nights. However, Harrison said he has no problems sticking one of his running backs under center if it came to that.
The Lancers will definitely have no shortage of playmakers in the running back department, led by seniors Austin Perez, Jordan Thomas and juniors Daniel Faamatau, Josh Martinez, Billy Moore and Andrew Navarro. Thomas can also be used as a tight end as he stands at 6’ 3”, 260.
Senior Raylind Butler will be the top wide receiver along with senior Marquiz Finley. Martinez will also get his share of catches.
In the past where the Lancers have passed probably 10 percent of the time, if that, Harrison said he would like to see more balance this year and wants to be able to throw the ball because the Lancers can throw the ball. Harrison would eventually like to get that ratio to 60-40, or possibly 70-30.
The offensive line will be handled by senior Enrique Perez, who was the center last season, and junior Etieni Valele, both of whom will be guards, junior tackles Gabe Guzman and Matthew Hurtado and junior center Jordan Rodriguez. Senior Robert Rodriguez will also see some time on the line.
The Lancers scored at least 48 points in their final four regular season games, but were also limited to single digits four times. Expect Norwalk to continue lighting up the scoreboard this season.
“I believe it [can be explosive]” Harrison said of his offense. “I don’t want to get too far ahead. But these guys are really fully invested and football is so beautiful in that to the person who invests the most amount of time has the most success. These guys really want to play, they really like each other and they really like it here.”
The defense is well-experienced as Jordan and Robert Rodriguez will be on the defensive line along with Thomas. Faamatau will split time between being a lineman and a linebacker with the other linebackers being junior Brandon Barrett, Perez and Valele. Playing in the secondary will be junior safeties Joseph Rodriguez and Jonathan Tovar along with Moore and Navarro. Sophomore Mario Alfaro will play one of the cornerback positions and Finley could see a little time there as well. One player that Harrison said will get a chance to play some defense will be Butler, who was listed as a cornerback on last season’s roster.
“This guy is fast,” Harrison said. “I think last year, he just wanted to be on the team, so he had some success. Some things turned him off. In the offseason, he just kind of developed a real serious attitude about playing football and I think you guys are really going to be surprised by that kid this year. He’s taken on a much more leadership role. No one could cover him in seven-on-seven.”
Norwalk has revamped its non league schedule by dropping Bell High, El Toro High and St. John Bosco High, the last two resulting in a combined 109-14 loss. El Rancho High and Long Beach Jordan High are new opponents for the Lancers while Norwalk last played Dominguez High in 2013 and came away with a 19-7 playoff victory.
“I can’t ignore that the preseason [last season] was built based off of past teams,” Harrison said. “And in a public high school…we don’t care about getting transfers. We care about coaching kids who want to go to Norwalk High. You’re asking a lot when you base a schedule off of a team from last year.”
The Lancers have won 13 straight against city rival John Glenn High, outscoring the Eagles 238-6 in the past four seasons. The last time the Mayor’s Cup game has been played in September was in 2007. La Mirada High is the only league opponent Norwalk has not defeated at home since at least 1998, but has scored at least three touchdowns in the last three home games. This season’s meeting with La Mirada will be played at Goodman Stadium on the La Mirada campus as it will be streamed live by Fox Sports West Prep Zone. But the Lancers will still wear their home jerseys. Norwalk has won two straight against Mayfair High at Ron Yary Stadium on the Bellflower High campus.
“El Rancho is a tradition-rich school,” Harrison said. “That school is used to kids going to college and playing football. They’re used to having success in football. They’ve never been known to have bad coaching. They always put out a good product. Anytime you’re facing a tradition-rich school, you’ve got to cover all of your basis.
“In my mind, I do believe we should have a chance in every game,” he later added. “In my mind, with this offseason, there’s going to be some soul searching if we are on the lower end of our preseason. We’ve worked extremely hard and I don’t know if anyone is willing to just let that go out the window to anyone.”
Since 2004, Norwalk has hosted Cerritos High on homecoming night five times, winning the last four by a combined score of 160-22. The last time the Lancers lost to the Dons was in 2004, which was also a Norwalk homecoming game. Norwalk has won three straight homecoming games since a devastating 45-44 overtime loss to Bellflower.
There are 29 schools in this division and Norwalk should fit in quite well with fellow league opponent Mayfair in the division as well. Keep an eye on a potential Norwalk first-round game with Valley Christian High depending on where those two schools finish in the standings and if the CIF wants to keep things relatively geographically close in the first round. El Rancho is also in the same division, so head to head will definitely play a huge factor.
“I appreciate the just effort by CIF in trying to break up some things here,” Harrison said. “As a public high school for us, it would be nice to be with people who have public high school kids. I’m not complaining, but last year, if we beat Burroughs, we turn around and play St. Francis, a private school. You’re fortunate if you can compete with a private school or a school that is much bigger than yours. Now, I like the effort of trying to give individuals a fair chance rather than still having the same four teams every year make it to the semifinals. I think that’s going to encourage a lot of people.”
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