By Brian Reed-Baiotto, Sports Editor

Last night, the 2023 season, which includes the CIF-SS and CIF State playoffs, finally came to an end for every program that this site covers.

Of those 27 programs in the 210 Prep Sports coverage zone, three teams (Charter Oak, West Covina and RHP) earned CIF-SS title-game appearances, but only one secured a championship.

On November 25th, Rio Hondo Prep left Santa Monica High School with a 29-27 victory in the CIF-SS Division 9 title game.

With the game tied at 21-21, the Kares scored with 1:09 to play and took a 27-21 lead.

They lined up to boot the extra-point attempt.

But when the Vikings jumped offside, RHP decided to go for two, and they were successful.

Fast forward to the last play of regulation, and Santa Monica’s Wyatt Brown found Charles Cravings in the back of the north end zone for an 11-yard TD.

It set off a raucous celebration amongst the SMHS players, coaches and their fans.

The Kares’ Nathaniel Shine, however, silenced the Vikings’ faithful when he knocked down Brown’s 2-point pass attempt, and in doing so, he secured RHP’s first CIF-SS championship since 2012.

There are many reasons why the 2023 season was special for this Rio Hondo Prep program.

To start, RHP won 13 games, which is two more than the next closest (West Covina) program in this zone.

The Kares also had to win three of their four playoff games on the road (Orange, Vista del Lago and Santa Monica) to raise the CIF trophy.

RHP went 7-1 against playoff teams, and that included a 29-9 victory over Torrance in week five.

Last Saturday, those same Tartars defeated West Covina, 23-7, to win the CIF-SS Division 10 title.

Rio Hondo Prep (170 students) competes weekly against schools who have an approximate 10-15 times advantage in enrollment numbers.

RHP didn’t have any ‘superstars’ that could break an 80-yard TD run at any moment like in recent years, and yet this group had more success and a ring to show for their hard work and dedication.

That little school in Arcadia got contributions from everyone in an RHP uniform, but there were two guys that shouldered a lot of responsibility in making this season nothing less than historic.

For all they do on both sides of the ball, Noah Penunuri and Nate Curtis have been named the 210 Prep Sports Football Players of the Year.

Noah Penunuri is just a sophomore, who spends his time at running back and linebacker.

Penunuri led a Kares ground game that rushed for 3,463 yards and 52 TD’s.

RHP averaged 231 yards per game, as compared to 94 yards through the air.

Penunuri had team highs in carries (200), rushing yards (1,402) and TD’s (18).

If that weren’t enough, Penunuri was third in tackles with 68.

In 2023, the Kares outscored their opponents, 488-249, and they had an average margin of victory of 33-17.

RHP’s success was rooted in their ground game, which allowed them to own the time of possession battle with almost every opponent.

And as mentioned, Penunuri led the Kares rushing attack.

But as well as Noah played throughout 2023, Penunuri took his game to another level in the postseason.

In playoff wins over St. Margaret’s (28-26), Orange (22-13), Vista del Lago (31-14) and Santa Monica (29-27), and the season-ending loss (29-14) at Mission Oak, Penunuri rushed for 726 yards (145 per game) and six TD’s, and he caught four passes for 40 yards.

He also had 22 tackles and an interception on the defensive side of the ball.

It was also when Penunuri scored that made this kid money.

He had the last RHP touchdown in playoff wins over St. Margaret’s, Orange and Santa Monica, along with two 2-point conversions, and Noah scored the final two TD’s at Vista del Lago in the semifinal round.

As Penunuri enters his junior season is 2024, he’ll need just 58 rushing yards to reach the 2,000-yard club.

Penunuri will play for the RHP soccer team, and in the spring, he’ll be part of the Kares baseball program.

What many don’t know is that Noah is a badass in martial arts, and he hopes to attend Michigan in three years.

His GPA is nearing the 3.6 range, and Penunuri said his parents, Laura Benavides, and Armando Penunuri, have been his brightest guiding lights.

“They’ve helped, supported and guided me through my life,” he said. “I appreciate how positive my mom is, and how my dad keeps it real with me.”

And in spite of being just a sophomore, many of his older teammates look up to Noah Penunuri for the way he goes about his business, on and off the football field.

At the bottom of this story, you’ll see answers to questions I sent Penunuri and Curtis, as well as quotes from four of their teammates.

Nate Curtis looks like a smaller version of San Francisco 49ers running back, Christian McCaffrey.

The RHP junior has the blond hair, chiseled body and just like McCaffrey, Curtis has a football IQ that is off the charts.

Curtis plays far above his size, and RHP opponents overlooked Nate’s abilities at their own peril.

It would be difficult to overstate the contributions of Nate Curtis.

He had team highs in catches (25), receiving yards (589), receiving TD’s (6) and all-purpose yards (1,780).

Curtis is second in rushing yards (970), TD runs (12), tackles (72) and interceptions (2).

The all-purpose yards are 322 more than Penunuri.

Nate’s receptions, receiving yards and TD catch totals are 12, 331, and two more than Joshua Taflinger, respectively, who ranks second among all RHP receivers in those three categories.

Caeden Holcomb’s 77 tackles leads RHP, and Josh Curtis and Calogero Chico lead the Kares defense with three picks apiece.

In the postseason, Curtis rushed for 342 yards and three TD’s.

He caught four passes for 176 yards, and that included TD receptions of 72 and 63 yards.

And his 33 tackles in the playoffs led all RHP defensive players.

The only thing(s) more impressive than Nate’s one-the-field prowess is the way in which he conducts himself as a young man, and that epic 4.2 grade-point average in the classroom.

Curtis credits his parents, Allison and Monty Curtis, for the life he’s living and the opportunities that would not be possible without their unconditional love and guidance.

“They’ve played a massive role in my life and supported me in my every endeavor, especially scholastically and athletically. They’ve modeled what a good Christ-centered marriage can look like, and my father set a great example of what’s it’s like to live as a man of God.”

Curtis hopes to follow in footsteps of his parents and attend the University of Southern California.

It should be mentioned that Penunuri and Curtis wanted to credit every coach and teammate for all they did in making 2023 an historic season.

Mark Carson described his dynamic duo this way: “Watch Nate and Noah in any one of our games and you can see that they are incredible players, who are dynamic on both offense and defense. The coolest thing about them though is their Christian character and who they are as young men. They are respectful, hard-working, humble and they’re great students and classmates as well.”

Lastly, I asked Penunuri and Curtis to answer the following questions: At what point during the season did you first think ‘we might have a shot at a CIF championship? Considering you didn’t have guys who could break an 80-yard TD at any moment like RHP has had in the past, and yet you hit the jackpot (CIF title), does that make it more satisfying that it took everybody to accomplish this level of success? What did you feel your role was in giving RHP a chance to win a championship? What was your favorite moment of the season, and finally, what do you respect about each other?

Said Noah Penunuri: “From the start, I believed we could win this thing, not just because of the talent on the team, but because of the mindset of our team. It definitely did, seeing how the team’s hard work paid off and how it wasn’t just one single guy, but all of us that contributed to hitting the jackpot. My role was to just get positive yards and get tackles, I tried to be a big playmaker, and I made sure that I was doing my job. My favorite moment collectively was the goal-line stand at Santa Monica. Everyone was in on the action, and we fought even when there was a blade of grass left. It really shows who we are and that we will always fight in any circumstance. Individually, I’d say it was anytime we ran straight into their biggest linemen with them knowing where it was going, but they couldn’t stop us. It showed how tough we are as a team. I appreciate and admire Nate’s determination and toughness. He’s always working hard in the weight room and on the field, and he never wants to take a play off. He is truly Kare and someone to look up to. You can definitely see all this translate to the game. He is such a great player and a great guy. I can’t say enough about him.”

Said Nate Curtis: “The game after Brentwood when we played Campbell Hall, because I saw the way we bounced back from that difficult loss, and I realized we had something special going. Certainly, because, unlike some teams that rely on their star player, our team revolves around everyone doing their job and playing till the whistle blows. Our coaches are big on everyone finishing every play, because that is what it takes when you lack a dominant player. Defensively, my role is to help some of the younger and more inexperienced players get lined correctly and to help clean up anything that comes my way. Offensively, it’s to be a threat that the other teams have to watch, which helps to open up some running lanes for Noah. And when I get the ball, to get as many yards as I can. My favorite individual moment was seeing my brother (Josh) pick that pass and he kneeled on the 1-yard line at Orange. It was really cool to see him step up in such an amazing way. I really respect and appreciate Noah’s toughness. It really amazes me the way he’s able to fight off huge defenders and when it’s necessary to take big hits. Without his durability, our team would be a shadow of what it is right now. Noah’s role in this run was huge and two-part. Being a constant on defense and delivering big hits, and Nate was the soul of our offense, and running 20+ times a game.”

To view a photo gallery by Susan Coulter, Clarissa Johnson and Tim Lunney, click on the Facebook link here: Facebook


RHP senior, Joshua Taflinger: “Both Noah and Nate are the hardest workers on the field. They are the guys that are still on the field when the stadium lights need to be shut off. Not only are they amazing athletes and football players, but they care about others so much. They are some of the truest guys you’ll have as friends, and they are always there for support.”

RHP senior, Colby Johnson: Nate and Noah are vital to our team’s success, because they are highly competitive, and they are phenomenal leaders. They are fearless and they are willing to run through anyone for our team. They are both close friends of mine that are always there for me when I need them, and they always make my day better when I see them. Noah and Nate boost the morale of our team while also making our team strong and brave.”

RHP senior, Alex Mustain: Nate and Noah are crucial parts of this team. They are the backbone of pretty much how everything gets done. They are the offensive spark. They score and carry most of our points. Without either of them, we wouldn’t be where we are now. They are so important to the success of Rio football. They both protect the ball well and run hard every repetition. Both of them are insane competitors. They are always in the weight room working hard and it doesn’t stop there. They are great leaders too. They always make an example of how to play ball as a dominator, and not the one who is being dominated. I love these boys so much. They are great friends and always will be.”

RHP junior, Caeden Holcomb: Nate and Noah are both good players when it comes time for Friday nights, but they also contribute to the team off the field. Nate is someone that everyone looks up to on and off the field, and he is a great leader. Nate will outwork most people and he knows what it takes to keep improving whether it’s in the weight room or inside the classroom. There is always room for improvement with Nate and this positively contributes to our team when people follow his footsteps. Noah is not only a beast on the field, but he is also an animal when it comes to martial arts. Other than being consistent on the field, he is also one of the better leaders on our team. Noah is one of the kindest and most humble guys you will ever meet. Most people can put their trust in him as a leader, because of his outgoing personality. He is a quick learner and is able to make adjustments and put his body on the line for the team. Both of these guys are fun to compete with, and they are both competitive with each other because of how they always push each other. Our entire backfield is deadly because of the threat of the ball going to either of them. Other teams always have to account for them, which opens up passing plays or different running plays. Overall, they are both great teammates.”

Noah Penunuri’s 2023 Postseason Stats:
RHP 28, St. Margaret’s 26: 26 carries for 161 yards & TD runs of 17, 1 & 14 yards; two tackles
RHP 22, Orange 13: 16-100 & TD run of 38 yards; 11 tackles
RHP 31, Vista del Lago 14: 27-176 & TD runs of 1 & 32 yards; two tackles and a pick
RHP 29, Santa Monica 27: 29-178 & TD runs of 9 and 2 yards; 7 tackles & two 2-point runs
Mission Oak 29, RHP 14: 21-111 & six tackles
Playoff Totals: 726 yards rushing & and six TD’s; three catches for 40 yard; 22 tackles & one interception

Nate Curtis’ 2023 Postseason Stats:
RHP: 28, St. Margaret’s 26: 23-127 & 1-yard TD; & four tackles
RHP 22, Orange 13: 14-91 & 8-yard TD; nine tackles
RHP 31, Vista del Lago 14: 12-42, & six tackles
RHP 29, Santa Monica 27: 8-66 & 3-yard TD, 1-14, & seven tackles
Mission Oak 29, RHP 14: 7-16, 3-162 & two TD’s, & seven tackles
Playoff Totals: 342 yards rushing, three rushing TD’s; four catches for 176 yards & TD’s of 72 and 63 yards; 33 tackles

Noah Penunuri’s Career Stats:
2023: 200 carries for 1,402 yards & 18 TD’s; 6 catches for 53 yards; 68 tackles & one pick
2022: 86-540 & four TD’s; 2-55-0; 43 tackles & no picks
Totals: 265 carries for 1,942 yards & 22 TD’s; 8 catches for 108 yards; 105 tackles & one pick

Nate Curtis’ Career Stats:
2023: 111 carries for 970 yards & 12 TD’s; 25 catches for 589 & six TD’s; 72 tackles & two picks
2022: 43-392 & four TD’s; 19-418-8 TD’s; 39 tackles & three picks
2021: 25 tackles & two picks
Totals: 154 carries for 1,362 yards & 16 TD’s; 44 catches for 1,007 yards & 12 TD’s; 136 tackles & 7 picks

Rio Hondo Prep’s 2023 Schedule & Results:
8/19: RHP 45, Francis Parker 14
8/26: RHP 47, Poly 21
9/1: RHP 45, El Monte 15
9/8: RHP 42, Marquez 14
9/15: RHP 42, Boron 6
9/22: RHP 29, Torrance 9
9/29: RHP 28, King’s Academy 13
10/13: RHP 35, Viewpoint 7
10/20: Brentwood 34, RHP 13
10/27: RHP 38, Campbell Hall 7
11/3: RHP 28, St. Margaret’s 26
11/10: RHP 22, Orange 13
11/17: RHP 31, Vista del Lago 14
11/24: RHP 29, Santa Monica 27
12/2: Mission Oak 29, RHP 14

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