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The Age of Excellence: In the lead

2003’s big story: Sean Norton

Posted: December 22, 2009 11:01 p.m.
Updated: December 23, 2009 4:30 a.m.
Hart High graduate Sean Norton shows the 2003 CIF championship ring he won as the quarterback of the Indians on Monday at Hart High School. Norton passed for 8,051 yards in his high school career. Hart High graduate Sean Norton shows the 2003 CIF championship ring he won as the quarterback of the Indians on Monday at Hart High School. Norton passed for 8,051 yards in his high school career.
Hart High graduate Sean Norton shows the 2003 CIF championship ring he won as the quarterback of the Indians on Monday at Hart High School. Norton passed for 8,051 yards in his high school career.

He’s still leading.

Sean Norton, the highly-accomplished Hart High quarterback who led his team to the 2003 CIF-Southern Section Division II championship by outplaying current New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, is now 23 years old.

He works for the city of Santa Clarita as a youth sports coordinator in its department of recreation.

Norton helps oversee a staff of 10.

Ironic, as he did the same on the football field.

It was seven years ago that Norton burst onto the scene as the next in a storied line of great Hart quarterbacks.

Norton was a two-time All-CIF Offensive Player of the Year.

In 2002, he followed current Caroilna Panthers quarterback Matt Moore, who finished his stellar Hart career the season before.

Norton helped lead the Indians to the Division II championship game in 2002, but they fell to powerful Mission Viejo 10-6.

It set up one of the most memorable seasons in Hart football’s rich history.

The Indians began the 2003 season 0-3 and Norton remembers doubt crept in.

“The beginning of that season, there was a lot of frustration within the team and a lot of, I wouldn’t say a confused feeling, but there were mixed emotions,” says Norton, who finished his last college final last Wednesday and is about to receive his bachelor’s degree in communications from Cal State Northridge.

Hart wouldn’t lose again that season.

Even though others thought they would.

Especially in Canyon Country.

From 1999 to 2001, Canyon football, once a state power, went through coaching changes and losing seasons.

In 2002, Harry Welch, who led the Cowboys to CIF titles in 1983, 1984 and 1985, returned to coach the Cowboys.

The program turned around immediately and in 2003, the Cowboys trotted out one of their most talented teams ever, led by future Cal quarterback and 2006 Holiday Bowl Co-Offensive MVP Nate Longshore.

Surrounding Longshore was a crop of stars, including 1,500-yard running back Louis Montano, the school’s all-time leading receiver Sean Coen and linebacker Andrew Schantz, who would later get a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Those (players) perhaps were the core group that led to, for me, the second renaissance of Canyon football,” says Welch, now the coach at St. Margaret’s in San Juan Capistrano.

There was a lot of hype surrounding the Oct. 23 game.

But the game didn’t live up to it.

The lights at Canyon High went out during the second quarter, causing a 34-minute delay, and the Indians turned the lights out on the Cowboys with a 56-21 victory.

“Norton, his ability to throw a tight fastball on the money — I don’t know if it was exceeded by a money player,” Welch says.

Every week, the question was asked: “Who would be the team that would end Hart’s stranglehold of the Foothill League?”

Hart had won every single Foothill title since 1991.

Valencia was the next threat.

By the time the two teams met, the Indians’ league winning streak was at 62 games.

Norton says that at the time, Canyon had been passed over as Hart’s main rival by upstart Valencia — a program that made CIF title games in 1999 and 2001, both times losing to Hart.

On the week of the 2003 Valencia game, the Hart football team was in a classroom watching film during the school’s lunch period.

The walls began to rattle and a thundering noise rumbled through the building.

The Indians exited the classroom and went outside to see what the noise was coming from.

A plane kept buzzing above the campus with a banner that read: “Go Valencia, Beat Newhall.”

The Valencia student body sometimes refers to Hart as “Newhall High” as a sign of disrespect.

Hart beat Valencia. Though the Indians had to come back to win 42-35.

Shortly after, Hart junior wide receiver Ryan Wolfe made his return to the team.

A soft-handed, soft-spoken receiver with an uncanny ability for the big-play, the receiver tore an ACL in the final passing league contest of the summer.

He rehabilitated and returned for the postseason.

Hart head coach Mike Herrington remembers Wolfe’s mother being nervous about her son’s quick return.

“He’d be in practice running up and down the track (while he was rehabbing),” Herrington recalls. “His mom wanted him to wait until his senior year. ... The first game he makes this long catch for a touchdown and the announcer says: ‘Welcome back Ryan Wolfe.’
Everyone cheered. It was great.”

While the Indians handled their side of the Division II bracket in the playoffs, Mission Viejo did the same on its side, eventually rolling over Canyon in the semifinals.

The rematch was set.

Mission Viejo, winners of 41 straight, were the clear favorite coming in, Herrington remembers.

And there were major differences.

The Diablos were and still are known as an elitist program.

The program gets some of Orange County’s best athletes year in and year out. The team’s coach, Bob Johnson, is direct and opposing coaches and the media have regarded him as cold and even arrogant.

“At the Home Depot Center, we pulled in first. Mission Viejo pulled up in a charter bus. We were in a yellow bus. I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’ll never beat these guys,’” Herrington says. “And getting off the bus, I was hauling water coolers and (equipment) and Bob Johnson had a full entourage helping him.”

Hart quickly made a statement.

Dan Howell, who would eventually play for Washington and go to training camp with he Cincinnati Bengals as a linebacker, scored on a 51-yard run on the game’s first drive to put Hart up 7-0.

Hart would take a 13-0 lead into halftime on a touchdown pass from Norton to his future college teammate at Fresno State Kevin Ciccone, who is now 23 with a degree in communications.

Ciccone, who is training to become a firefighter, also had a key defensive play in the first half, stripping Mission Viejo’s Ramon Scott of the ball inside the Hart 20-yard line.

“Me and (defensive coordinator Rick Herrington) walk off the field at halftime and look at each other and ask, ‘Can we keep this going?’” Mike Herrington says.

Hart did.

The Indians held Mission Viejo off the scoreboard until the 2:19 mark of the fourth quarter.

Sanchez was 11-of-23 for 178 yards and three interceptions.

Norton would toss two more touchdown passes in the game, both to Wolfe, and the Indians would eventually win 25-7.

“It was kind of a sense of redemption for the team,” Ciccone says. “It kind of made all the hard work and promises we made to each other worth it. There were a lot of haters out there, a lot of doubters at the time. We kept our heads up.”
Norton, then a senior, was 20-of-24 for 309 yards.

“He was just a great competitor,” Herrington now says of Norton. “He was always out there taking charge, but he was a great teammate. His teammates looked up to him and followed his lead.”

Says Ciccone: “He was the team.”

Coming into the 2009 season, Norton was 25th in state history in passing yardage with 8,051 yards — that in just two seasons.

It’s the most yards in Hart history — more than Kyle Boller, Matt Moore, Kyle Matter, anybody.

To this day, it doesn’t mean as much as playing on a great team, Norton says.

The quarterback points out that 10 of the 11 starters on that Hart offense played college football.

They overshadowed an undersized defense that came up big on the biggest stage.

Norton ended up playing at Fresno State.

In 2006, Norton nudged his way into the starting lineup, even leading the Bulldogs into LSU to play JaMarcus Russell and the Tigers.

Fresno State was blown out 38-6, but Norton had a respectable game, completing 13-of-20 passes for 134 yards. He didn’t turn the ball over once.

Norton started the following week, then Fresno State gave the starting job to someone else.

The 2003 Parade High School All-American and California’s Mr. Football transferred from Fresno State after the season to Northern Arizona.

After a summer, having never played in a game for Northern Arizona, he left, ending his football career.

“I wanted to compete, but the love of the game slipped away,” Norton says. “I told myself when I didn’t love the game, that’s when it was time to walk away.”

Norton takes a lot of pride in the accomplishments of his high school career.

The year 2003 obviously sticks out as a special one.

But to him, he says, it wasn’t who he played against or what numbers he put up that made that year so special.

“It’s not so much what I did,” he says. “It’s who I played with.”



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