Newman keeps pushing to victory

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Watching Encinal move methodically for the game’s first score, Cardinal Newman’s offense was anxious to answer.

Encinal quarterback Andrew Ve'e fumbles the ball after colliding with Newman defenders Garrett Guanella, left and Palmer Courtland during Friday's NCS Division III championship game. Newman recovered the fumble. (KENT PORTER / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)

The first of two consecutive fourth down rushing conversions followed center James Pennington and the heart of the Cardinals’ offensive line. Cardinal Newman came up short on another fourth down attempt. Still, the drive provided momentum as Cardinal Newman tied the game on their next drive.

Strong blocking and sure running carried the Cardinals to the Division III section football title.

“The playoffs is when everything gelled, when we put our foot on the gas,” said Pennington, a starter his first year on the Cardinals’ varsity.

An anchor in Cardinal Newman’s prolific running game, Pennington on offense and linebacker Daniel Benjamin on defense are a pair of the most improved players on a team that started slow and finished strong.

“They’re guys that focused on the right things and worked really hard and it’s paying off,” said Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin.
“That’s high school sports. Are they trying to get the most out of it? You love guys that are overachieving.”

One player grateful to just get back on the field was Courtland Palmer.

“It feels amazing. It gets better every game,” Palmer said.

A stalwart on the defensive line as a sophomore, Palmer suffered a severe knee injury in the season’s second game. Determined to return, Palmer was running three weeks after surgery and tackling opposing ball carriers in the Miramonte semifinal section playoff win. Getting even more playing time in the title game, Palmer made stops and forced a fumble that Benjamin recovered.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The toughest part was watching from the sideline,” he said.

Cardinal Newman kept winning long enough to give Palmer that opportunity to play again this season.

“It’s helped our team tremendously, the way he worked hard to get back for his teammates. It was a great commitment that he made to himself and his teammates,” Cronin said.

Much as Palmer battled back, the Cardinals needed to dig deep and turn around their season after opening with a win followed by two one-sided losses. While those games were against large school powers from San Jose and Salinas, the Cardinals didn’t play their best.

That the offense found its footing and the defense began slowing down opponents reflected a collective effort demonstrated by the work of first-year starters Pennington and Benjamin, as well as by Palmer’s comeback.

“It was a little rocky start this season. We just all got working together,” Pennington said.

The same could be said of Friday’s contest.

“We were not physical enough out there. We had to play tougher,” Benjamin said.

Encinal outgained Cardinal Newman 201 yards to 119 yards in rushing in the first half. Yet the game was tied and the defense would buckle down, getting the Jets’ offense to the sidelines and giving the Cardinals time to score and wear down Encinal’s defense.

“We just knew we needed to get some points on the scoreboard and the defense would take over,” Benjamin said.

The offensive line did its part — “the fats” as they’re affectionately named by their teammates — opening running lanes and getting secondary blocks for big plays.

“James makes all our line calls. He’s in control out there,” Cronin said of Pennington. “Physically he’s always been pretty good. He understands the game a lot better now.”

The defense gained toughness with Benjamin on the field, Cronin said.

“He’s undersized for that position. He’s one of those tough guys and is a real smart football player,” Cronin said.

The hardest working team Palmer said he has been a part of did it again Friday.

“The team’s been an inspiration,” he said.

For seniors including Pennington and Benjamin, the win was worth the effort.

“The season couldn’t have ended on a better note,” Benjamin said.