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2019 FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Gray returns for second stint hoping to revitalize slumping Norwalk program

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

NORWALK LANCERS

0-10 overall last season, 0-3 in the Suburban League, fourth place

26-28 overall last five seasons

Head coach: Dean Gray (fourth season overall, 13-18 in first stint)

Lost 14 seniors out of 54 players from 2018 roster

Last time made the playoffs: 2017

2019 schedule

Aug. 23           Pacifica (5-6 overall last season)

Aug. 29           @ Bell (6-6)

Sept. 6            @ Bell Gardens (7-5)

Sept. 13          @ Long Beach Jordan (3-7)

Sept. 20          California (4-6)

Sept. 27          Norte Vista (9-3)

Oct. 4              John Glenn (6-5)

Oct. 11            BYE

Oct. 18            Bellflower (7-3)

Oct. 25            Mayfair (9-3)

Nov. 1             @ La Mirada (2-9)

The 2018 season couldn’t have gone any worse for Norwalk High, which went winless for the first time in over 20 seasons and did not come remotely close to turning that goose egg into a victory. Out is former head coach Otis Harrison, who had gone 19-24 in four seasons with three straight trips to the CIF-Southern Section. Enter former Norwalk mentor Dean Gray, who coached the program from 2005-2007. The year before Gray took over, Norwalk was 1-9, but by the time Gray reached his third season, the Lancers began a string of 11 straight postseason trips. Gray over for Harrison in February.

“I’m really excited about the upcoming season,” Gray said. “I have a lot of assistant coaches with a lot of experience. Ken Mardis is my linebackers coach and Art Dominguez is the [defensive backs] coach. Efren Salgado, a teacher on campus, is our defensive coordinator. He came from La Habra. And then Ruben Guerrero is a teacher on campus who has over 20 year’s experience. Miguel Rivera is our [junior varsity] head coach, who was our quarterback the year we went to the semifinals and then Eddie Moreno is our freshman coach.”

Gray started at Norwalk as the junior varsity head coach in 1989 and has been teaching at Norwalk for 25 consecutive years. While Gray inherits a sticky situation, which includes some key players transferring out, he said there are 110-120 players in the program with about 35-40 on all three levels. The Lancers will take their lumps this season and wins may be hard to come, but Gray hopes to repeat the same, or better, results he did during his first stint.

“We’re just focused on this year,” Gray said. “Coach Otis worked very hard the last four or five years he was here. He’s an incredible coach and an incredible teacher, too. So, I just want to get to know the kids a lot because I haven’t coached since 2007. We know what’s in front of us and we’re just going to take it one game at a time.”

OFFENSE

Last season was probably among the worst the program had ever seen as the Lancers scored 56 points with 42 coming in the first three games. They were shutout five times in the last six games and had only one lead, which came in the second game against Valley Christian High when they held a 7-0 advantage heading into the second quarter. Norwalk will run the same offense it did when Gray coached his last season the first time around-the double-wing. Back then, Robert Penny and Jose Guzman were the tailbacks and picked up the bulk of the yardage. Gray says he still calls Jesse Ceniceros, who took over for Gray. to get advice on the double-wing in terms of certain techniques and blocking schemes. Ceniceros would take the double-wing to the next stop and guided the Lancers to an appearance in the 2013 divisional finals. Junior Christopher DeLeon will be the starting quarterback with senior David Ramirez, who was a cornerback last season, as his backup.

Seniors Sergio Martinez, Daniel Onopa and Donovan Sheppard will lead the ground game along with junior Milton Romen, who is in his first season with the Lancers. Senior Isaac Martinez will be the fullback. The same players who are in the backfield will also catch the passes thrown by DeLeon or Ramirez, as well as a few tight ends Gray will have.

As far as the offensive line goes, Gray is still looking at a lot of guys in different positions. However, seniors Franklin Flores, Andrew Ochoa and Nathan Ramos are all returning starters with the rest of the personnel still to be determined.

Gray said in the double-wing offense, he wants the guys to know all the positions, which is an advantage of the type of offense Norwalk has run and will run.

“I didn’t see us play too many games last year; I only saw one or two,” Gray said. “So, I’m just catching up on film. When I was the head varsity football coach, I ran a pro set offense, because that’s what I grew up in the high school I went to.”

DEFENSE

As bad as Norwalk’s offense was last season, the defense was worse as the Lancers yielded 417 points. Norwalk’s best game came against Long Beach Jordan High, a 17-7 setback. But the team allowed over 40 points seven times. 

Norwalk will run a 4-3 defense and just like the offense, Gray still has a lot of uncertainties with the defensive personnel. However, he did say that Flores and Ramos will be the main linemen

with senior Izhar Torres, junior Davin Portillo and Sergio Martinez the main linebackers and Isaac Martinez, Onopa, Ramirez spearheading the secondary.

“I’m still getting to know the players,” Gray said. “The great thing about not knowing [everyone] is there are probably going to be four or five names I haven’t mentioned by game three, game four, game five that you’re going to go, ‘wow’.”

SCHEDULE

When you go 0-10 one year, you would hope to have a relatively easy schedule the following season so you can get back on the right track. But Norwalk’s non-league schedule is anything but easy. The Lancers face seven teams who went to the playoffs last season, including the first three to begin the season. 

“Every game is going to be tough and I’m not looking past anybody than the game we have coming up,” Gray said. “There are some really tough teams there and a lot of those teams went on to the playoffs and they have great coaching staffs. So, it will be enough for us to just focus on that, one week at a time and don’t get past that.”

The Lancers face the same teams as they did in 2018 except for their second contest in which they drop Valley Christian for Bell High. Norwalk easily handled Bell in 2014 and 2015 by a combined score of 91-14 but they were smashed by city rival John Glenn High 48-7, its first loss to the Eagles since 2002. 

It won’t be easy coming out of the bye week because the Suburban League figures to be tough again with Mayfair High the favorites to win it again and a road encounter with nemesis La Mirada High. Since 1998, the Lancers have defeated those two teams just seven times. If there is a silver lining, construction begins on a new campus stadium in September. In the meantime, players will be bussed to Excelsior High for practices.

“I know they are very well-coached, and they always have great athletes,” Gray said. “The Suburban League, whoever is at the top usually does very well in the playoffs. You know when you’re going to play Bellflower, Mayfair or La Mirada, you better be ready. It’s a tough league.”

HOMECOMING

At time of press, neither Gray, nor Norwalk front office personnel knew when homecoming was. The best two options would be against Norte Vista High, or the first league game against Bellflower High. The Lancers lost to Jordan in last season’s homecoming game and are 13-8 in such games since 1998. In 2012, Norwalk was edged by Bellflower 45-44 in an overtime thriller to spoil the special night. Last season, the Lancers were blasted by Norte Vista 56-0.

DIVISION 12

Norwalk takes a big drop from Division 9 to Division 12 and will be one of 46 schools who seek one of the 16 playoff spots. Bell Gardens High, who knocked off the Lancers 44-17 last season, and Glenn are the lone opponents who share the same division.

“I looked at a lot of the teams and again, I haven’t seen game film on a lot of the teams,” Gray said. “Again, I’m really not looking past Pacifica right now. We want to be well-prepared and have our kids in the best situation to be successful and we’ll go from there. But I couldn’t be more excited about being around the group of players we have this year because they’ve been working very hard.”