A glimmer of light could be seen at the conclusion of Taft’s recent 36-30 victory against Los Angeles Fairfax.
It was hard to tell whether it was a light that was going off in the players’ heads, as if they had suddenly figured some things out. Or maybe it was the kind of light one sees exiting from a long tunnel or deep cave.
The Toreadors are young this season, working under a head coach in his second season, and have been struggling in the nonleague schedule. Normally that is not a good combination. But then a team gets a win like this one; getting the final lead of a see-saw affair on a long touchdown pass, then coming up with the game’s only turnover — an interception — to secure the win.
Just as important Taft played a 60-minute game on the road, enduring all ebbs and flows, never quitting and not becoming disheartened if a certain play or call didn’t go its way.
That light? Maybe it’s the “a-ha” moment a young team, now 2-3 overall, is looking for to build on. Maybe it’s the positive that can create momentum as the Toreadors now turn their attention to West Valley League games.
Coach Deron Braswell hopes so.
“It was a ‘believe’ win,” Braswell said. “We’re 2-3. The question is, would we rather be 2-3 coming off loss, or be 2-3 coming off a win and going into the bye with positive energy. I’d rather be 5-0. But if you’re going to be 2-3, which are the cards we’ve kind of dealt ourselves, that’s a big win and a big way to win to keep everybody’s spirits up going into league.”
This is Taft’s bye week, a chance for the Toreadors to catch their breath, heal up from minor injuries, and re-focus on details that may make the difference between winning consistently or sporadically. It also gives them time to fully concentrate on the Oct. 10 home meeting with Granada Hills.
When Braswell says the Toreadors are young, he means it. There are approximately 24 players who get the bulk of playing time. Of that total, 19-20 had never before played varsity football. That includes the sophomores and juniors. As a football team, they are practically freshmen.
It’s not an excuse, Braswell said. It’s just the way it is. But the players and coaches have reached a point where they have an idea what they’re doing as a team, and what they should be doing as a team.
“After five games, now we’ve got a good taste of who they really are,” the coach said. “We saw them in the off season, we saw the work ethic — blah, blah, blah. But you’ve got five games now, teams you might consider better that have beaten us, games we might be better than that we won.
“I think we have a healthy understanding of not only who the kid is, but who the football player is, too. From the coaching standpoint, it’s our job to put them in the right spot. But from the player’s standpoint, they know what they’re good at and not so good at. So they know what to work on, and from our standpoint we know what position to put them in where they can be successful. We can’t have kids doing things they’re not going to be successful at or don’t know. But we have a healthy understanding of who we are now, and that’s the biggest thing.”
Quarterback Chris Duncan, a junior, is one of those playing varsity for the first time. He said there have been some things to get used to.
“The game’s a lot faster, with bigger people,” Duncan said. “The speed of the game is the main thing for me.”
Duncan had an excellent game for Taft, completing 15 of 20 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions). His 67-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Oronoz with less than five minutes to play was the game-winner. Duncan also ran 25 yards for a TD.
A team has to be the quarterback’s team in order to soar. Duncan delivered the kind of performance needed to make guys believe in him and support him.
“Is this my team yet? To be honest, no. But I am working on that,” Duncan said. “I feel I’ve stepped up lately. Going into that win I feel I’ve stepped up as a leader. And during this bye week I plan to grow more as a leader.”
Wide receiver Jerrick Corley, a senior, who caught five passes for 68 yards and a touchdown felt a light of hope had shined on the Toreadors with the victory.
“I would have had worries about us going into league if we had lost,” Corley said. “But now we can talk about winning league and it’s believable.”
Fellow wide receiver Jahlil Lipkin, a junior agrees. In fact Lipkin — who also caught five passes, good for 73 yards and a touchdown — stated calmly the team should think of winning the West Valley.
“I believe we can win the league,” Lipkin said. “If we don’t it would be a disappointment. But every team should think like that. We can do it, though.”
Some coaches might frown on such pronouncements. But Braswell, who came to California from New Jersey eight years ago, coached previously at Taft in 2007 as an assistant under Matt Kerstetter and understands there is a tradition of winning here. He won’t mind a little swagger for a team still striving to create its identity. And this is also a year where, so far, there is no recognizable dominant team in the West Valley.
So why not Taft?
“I feel we’re the favorite — but I also feel that every team in our league should feel they’re the favorite,” Braswell said. “Everybody has a crack at it. There’s one way to win the league; win the game you have in front of you. And win the next game, and the next, and let everybody else do what they do as long as we can win our next game [starting with Granada Hills].
“I’ve always been taught that once you’re in league, every game’s a championship game. So if we can beat Granada in two weeks, we’re champs — until the next week.”