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Backlash Causes Newbury Park to Cease Tortilla Tossing : High school football: Parents, officials at heavily Latino Montebello took exception to celebratory practice of Panther fans.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The undefeated Newbury Park High football team has enjoyed a remarkably smooth ride. On Nov. 26, however, the Panthers hit a bump in the road.

School administrators and parents from predominantly Latino Montebello High were angered by Newbury Park spectators who tossed tortillas to the sideline in celebration during the Panthers’ 41-20 playoff quarterfinal victory at Newbury Park.

Newbury Park’s fans have thrown tortillas after Panther touchdowns throughout the season, although the reason for the practice is unclear.

Teri Scarpino, Newbury Park’s vice principal in charge of athletics, said the fans’ motives were harmless, merely expressing school spirit. The school received no complaints during the regular season, according to Scarpino.

However, Montebello officials, who said the school’s enrollment is 90% Latino, viewed the action as a racially motivated insult. Montebello complained to Southern Section Commissioner Dean Crowley and expressed the same concerns to Newbury Park. The section, in turn, told Newbury Park to stop celebrating in that fashion.

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“We think it is real clear that is something you do not do,” said Tim Murphy, Montebello’s athletic director. “I don’t think it was very racially sensitive.”

Newbury Park officials assured Crowley that the practice would stop. Crowley said no further action is planned.

Newbury Park (13-0) will play Hawthorne for the Division III championship Saturday at Moorpark College.

“There were some very hard feelings, especially with the parents,” Crowley said. “Newbury Park was very embarrassed. It was a situation we wanted to take care of quickly.”

Said Scarpino: “It was a very unfortunate misinterpretation of what our fans’ intentions were. There was no message behind it except school spirit.”

Newbury Park officials also apologized to their Montebello counterparts early last week. Still, that did not stop a deluge of angry phone calls.

“I was on the phone all week with (Montebello’s) administration and their parents,” Newbury Park Coach George Hurley said. “Then the section got involved. It was frustrating.”

The incident apparently led to hard feelings during the Panthers’ 43-26 semifinal victory Friday over host Bell Gardens, Montebello’s sister school in the Almont League. Bell Gardens also has a large Latino enrollment.

Newbury Park’s coaches and players were showered with jeers and obscene gestures before the opening kickoff.

Bell Gardens’ students and fans sported banners promoting Mexican pride, and several people ran throughout the home stands waving massive Mexican flags. Bell Gardens’ players had small Mexican flags tucked into their uniform pants, Newbury Park’s players said.

“It was an unbelievable atmosphere,” Hurley said. “I felt like I was the Ugly American in a foreign country.”

Hurley had not told his players about the Montebello complaints before the game, and the Panthers seemed rattled by the Bell Gardens fans. The Panthers quickly trailed, 14-0, before rallying to victory.

“I’m not going to lie, I was kind of nervous at the start,” senior quarterback Keith Smith said. “I had never seen anything like that; everybody waving all those flags.”

Crowley said he received no complaints after the game from the Bell Gardens contingent, indicating that Newbury Park fans had stopped the tortilla-tossing practice.

Senior receiver Jason Tucker was angered by the accusations of racism.

“No way are we racist,” Tucker said. “Look at me, Keith and (senior receiver) Leodes (Van Buren). Keith is white, I’m white and Puerto Rican, and Lee is black, and we’re all best friends.

“They took it all wrong.”

Still, Hurley said, the Panthers’ tortilla-tossing days are over.

“Nothing was meant by it, it was just something silly our fans do,” Hurley said. “But it’s sure not going to happen again.”


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