M. Terry / SFVS

Getting Closer to Playoff Form — Taft basketball players (l-r) Ramel Lloyd, Khalil Haywood and Myles Lofton are ready to see what is possible with a full, healthy team.

Derrick Taylor, like many coaches, can have intense moments. And they can be visible to the public when one of his Taft High boys’ basketball players takes an ill-advised shot, misses a defensive assignment, or simply doesn’t appear to be involved in the game.

Taylor does have various ways of eliminating stress. One of them might seem surprising.

“Coloring books. Been doing them since I was a kid and never stopped,” said Taylor, 57. He adds an impish smile. “I think I shock people when I tell them of my ability to put colors together, never go outside the lines, blend the colors evenly…I trip the kids out with it. I use color pencils and regular coloring books. I just color. And I can tell what kind of mood I’m in by the end of the picture.”

What on the surface could be viewed as a childish pursuit is instead a method for Taylor to quiet and re-focus his mind. Never go outside the lines. Create art through order.

He demands a similar level of structure and consistency in the play of his basketball teams. And, usually by the end of the Christmas break, Taylor has a pretty good idea of how close his team can come to his ideal.

But not this 2019-20 Taft Toreadors squad — at least not yet.

“I’m still discovering who they are.  And, yeah, that’s unusual at this point of the season,” Taylor said. “But we’ve still got new guys who are still learning what we do and understanding the culture here — that’s the biggest thing. At times they’ll fall back on what they used to do; sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. So we’re still learning each other and we’ve also had a lot of injuries.”

Center and power forward Myles Lofton, 18, has been on varsity three years and says he now better understands the oft-preached mantra of “one game at a time,” in part because of some of the early adversity and limited availability of players this season. But he also sees the Toreadors growing collectively stronger and smoother.

“We are a gritty team, we can go on a run and shut the other team down,” Lofton said. “Everybody has to be in their spots; that’s just how it is. And being a veteran on the team, I have to make sure guys are where they’re supposed to be. But we’re getting there. A lot of people looked down on us early, and were counting us out. But we’ve had some big wins, and I think we’re back in the race for the City championship again.”

Taylor also points out how he hasn’t had his complete roster available this season. “Maybe by the end of this week,” he said. The last piece is Khalil Haywood, a shooting guard, who’s recovering from a high ankle sprain. There should be enough time to integrate Haywood into the rotation before the playoffs start.

Haywood, 19, a senior, is eager to get back on the court as the team continues to gel.

“I think we’re ‘late bloomers,’” Haywood said. “Early in the season we were kinda young, playing more sophomores, guys who came from different schools. It was a little slow at first, but now we’re starting to ‘get’ [what the coaches want them to do]. And I don’t judge, I trust the process.”

Ramel Lloyd, 16, is one of the newbies at Taft this season, having transferred from Calabasas High. The sophomore guard has had a strong impact offensively, leading the team in scoring (21.1 points per game). But Lloyd has also learned how to involve himself into the Taft way of doing things.

“We run our sets. We come in here and work hard every day,” Lloyd said. “It’s different from where I came from. I feel right now we are one of the best teams in City. And we haven’t reached our full potential because we haven’t had our whole team.”  

The Toreadors are not the only potential contender needing extra time this season to sort things out. So far no dominant team has emerged within the top echelon of Division I. One can expect the usual suspects to appear — teams like Fairfax, Westchester, Gardena, El Camino Real, University — by the playoffs, and there are potential surprises taking shape at King/Drew, View Park, Granada Hills and South Gate.

Taft is definitely in the mix. On Saturday, Jan. 11, the Toreadors managed to grind out a tough 71-64 nonleague victory over Santa Clarita Christian High of Canyon Country. On Monday, Jan. 13, they sent a reeling Birmingham Community Charter High squad to its sixth straight loss, 72-53, in West Valley League play, improving their overall record to 12-5 and their league record to 2-0. (Wednesday’s result against Chatsworth High was unavailable at press time.)

“They are progressing,” Taylor said of his players. “And kids don’t always realize they are progressing; they don’t always have the experience and the patience to know they are. We’ve struggled offensively for a long time with the little nuances of our offense. But we’ve started to find the open man with those nuances — a guy will slip a screen at the right time — those things. And they are sharing the ball more. They’re understanding each other more and make an extra pass.

“I’m really happy with them.”

Haywood believes the Toreadors “are in rhythm now,” after seeing “how things clicked” against Santa Clarita Christian. “The game was looking easier for us. And knowing we can win, even dominate, that’s a new thing for us. What’s left? Learning how to close out a game. That’s still out there.”  

The Toreadors won back-to-back City Section Division I titles in 2011 and 2012 (under Jason Hart). They have not won a City title since then. Taylor — who has won three City titles at Taft since first taking over as head coach in 2001 and returned to the school in 2015 after a four-year stint at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower where he won Southern Section 3A and state CIF Division II championships — certainly doesn’t have to concern himself with things like legacy. But he also knows a coach and a team only gets so many shots at winning a championship. And you never want to waste one.

If Taft is going to play for an Open Division or Division I title, it cannot stray from its current path.

Stay inside the lines.

“There still has to be more togetherness and trust in one another,” the coach said. “They do compete and always play hard. Now, they must continue to play smart and just trust in each other. You have to believe in the man next to you. And that only comes with time, especially when you’re putting new pieces in. It just doesn’t automatically happen.”