It was, quite simply, one of the best sporting events I’ve ever covered.
Saturday’s CIF-SS Southeast Division football final between La Serna and Norwalk at Cal State Fullerton had it all – big plays on both sides, lead changes, fourth-down heroics and one of the most dramatic finishes in recent memory.
La Serna put to rest two years of Southeast finals frustration with Saturday’s 41-38 double overtime victory, knocking off top-seeded and previously unbeaten Norwalk when senior quarterback Frankie Palmer connected with Matthew Rosales for a 19-yard TD pass on fourth down-and-5. That capped an OT session that featured two missed PATs and what appeared to be a sure TD pass to Norwalk star Rashaad Penny that was broken up at the last second by La Serna’s Tony Ceron.
La Serna had lost the last two Southeast finals, 84-21 to West Covina in 2011 and 33-25 to Downey last year. The title is La Serna’s first since 1967 and the school’s second ever in football.
“I forgot all about the last two (losses),” La Serna coach Margarito Beltran said amid the postgame celebration.
Palmer completed 10 of 23 passes for 146 yards and the TD to Rosales. He also had TD runs of 1, 4 and 2 yards, and scored a crucial 2-point conversion late in the fourth quarter to tie the game. Beltran considered attempting a 38-yard field goal to tie the game on fourth down in the second OT, but decided to let his three-year starter make a play instead.
“(Palmer) said, ‘If you put the ball in my hands, I’ll get it done,’” Beltran said, “and that’s exactly what he did.”
Each team scored a TD in the first OT period, but both missed the resulting PAT. In the second session, Norwalk had possession first, and a Jacob Carr-to-Dillon Faamatau completion put the ball inside the 10. But La Serna’s defense stiffened, including Ceron’s touchdown-saving pass breakup, and Norwalk settled for a 21-yard field goal from Perez for a 38-35 lead.
Needing a TD to win, La Serna gained just six yards on its first three plays, and Beltran called timeout.
He briefly considered sending in Alex Vasquez for a 38-yard field goal attempt to tie the game, but wisely left Palmer in charge with the game’s outcome in the balance.
Out of the shotgun, Palmer first looked to his left, but pressure from Norwalk’s line forced him to roll right. That’s when he saw Rosales open near the 5 and got him the ball for the winning score.
“Frankie scrambled out, and I just tried to keep the route alive,” Rosales said.
The game’s two biggest plays came against Norwalk’s special teams. The first was a punt snap that sailed over Penny’s head, giving La Serna great field position late in the second quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, Kevin Ramos scored on an 8-yard run for a 21-14 halftime lead.
The second also involved Ramos, and came on a play that could have iced the game for Norwalk. With less than 3 minutes to play, Norwalk held a 29-21 lead and faced fourth down at the La Serna 3. But instead of going for it on fourth down, as he had successfully four times previously in the game, Norwalk coach Jesse Ceniceros sent place kicker Jorge Perez on the field. A successful kick would have given Norwalk a nearly insurmountable 11-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
The kick, however, was anything but successful. Ceron busted through the line to block the kick, and Ramos scooped up the ball at the 25. With nothing but teammates in front of him, Ramos raced 75 yards to put La Serna right back in the game. And when Palmer dove across the goal line to score a 2-point conversion, La Serna had somehow tied the game.
“It was all a team effort,” Ramos said of La Serna’s late-game rally. “We just said, ‘We’ve gotta bear down and do it and believe in the team.’”
Defensively, La Serna did an outstanding job against Penny, although he made several unbelievable plays throughout the game. Penny finished with 121 rushing yards, but over half of that came on a 61-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. He was held to six yards or less on 20 of his 23 carries.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound bruiser made a pair of remarkable TD catches and also blocked Vasquez’s potential game-winning PAT in the first overtime.