When Taft Charter High seniors Nicholas Abrego, Wellington Bristow and Robert Padilla step on the football field this Friday, Nov. 19, it will be for the last time.
And not just because they are seniors.
All the Taft football players, coaches and fans will witness the final game played in the campus stadium. It and several other athletic facilities at Taft are set to undergo a renovation that will take a year or longer — but they will then be state-of-the-art facilities.
So their game against Narbonne High of Harbor City will be an end of an era moment.
What Padilla and his teammates don’t want is for their 2021 season to end on Friday. Their game is one of two semifinals in the City Section’s Division III football playoffs this weekend. The championship game will be played next week.
“I’ve gotta be excited. But I’ve also gotta be focused and calm,” said Padilla, 17, a running back and linebacker. “I don’t want to lose on my home field — especially my last time playing on it.”
Whatever the outcome, the Toreadors’ 2021 season has been one for the history books. Their current head coach Jeff Kearin didn’t join them until just before the season started. The team was in the throes of a 26-game losing streak — dating back to Nov. 3, 2017 — until beating Van Nuys by a score of 43-6 on Aug. 27. The team was 3-7 overall and 0-5 in the West Valley League, yet was named the top seed in the Division III bracket. And Taft has played like it, handily defeating Los Angeles High and View Park High in its first two playoff games.
Just ending the losing streak “felt like a dream to me,” Padilla said. “It finally clicked the day after; we were expected to go 0-10 again, like every other season. I had no expectations, actually. I was just hoping to win a game, let alone, what, five now? It feels crazy to me.
“[And] as soon as I heard we were the number one seed, my jaw dropped. Even though it was D-III, to be ranked higher than any other team seemed impossible to me — especially [being winless in] our league. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Like Padilla, Abrego, 17, who plays on the offensive and defensive lines for Taft, was among the handful of players who have been here since their freshman year, and willingly persevered through all the lopsided losses and continual coaching changes.
“Honestly, I wanted to help rebuild the program,” Abrego said. “I didn’t want to give up — I wanted to be a part of something special. This senior year has been very special. To build something from nothing is pretty special. The other seniors feel the same way. We’re seeing the rise and it’s really beautiful.”
Bristow, 17 — who began playing football at Taft as a wide receiver but switched to quarterback in his junior year — also noted how the other veteran players stuck together when it would have been easy to transfer to another school and be part of a more successful program.
“We’d never been too worried about winning and losing, but having fun with each other as teammates because you only have high school once,” Bristow said.
“But when we did start having success it really helped us.”
Guiding this season’s slow but steady turnaround has been Kearin, who adds his own unique chapter in this story.
A former standout coach at Loyola High of Los Angeles (he won a Southern Section Pac-5 Division title there in 2009) before resigning. He took a job at McMinnville High in Oregon in 2010 but left after two seasons to become an assistant at Occidental College. He also coached at St. Monica High in Santa Monica as recently as 2016.
Kearin was in Virginia this summer, watching his daughter play in a field hockey tournament when he got a call from Taft officials asking if he would consider taking over the program because Coach Aron Gideon was going to resign for family reasons.
“I told them yes, but I was staying in Virginia the rest of the week, and when I got back to LA I was going to Hawaii, even though the practices had already started,” Kearin said. “I said, ‘if you’re good with that, and the assistants in place can keep the wheels in place, then I’m in agreement.’ They were good with that. And the guys there on the staff did an amazing job of keeping the kids organized and working. Once I got there I might have screwed it up awhile, but we got to know each other and figured things out.”
He said he was grateful the players were willing to give him a chance, considering the circumstances.
Abrego said it wasn’t that difficult a choice.
“We met him just prior to when he went on his vacation, like for 2-3 days,” Abrego said. “When he came back we wanted to be respectful; he was our head coach, we wanted to do what he asked. He was gonna lead us.
“And look we are where we are now, which is a good thing.”
It was thrilling enough to see the Toreadors end the losing streak, Kearin said. But the coach, too, was floored by the team’s postseason berth.
“I’m still trying to figure out how that works — how you can lose every league game and even go to the playoffs,” Kearin said. “I was planning to replant my front lawn and I was told we had playoffs. And to be the top seed, I’m not sure what that means.
“But it’s also been a great experience, and will help our program here a ton. The younger kids and older kids are having the experience of a playoff, we’ve had a little success, and it will make the offseason go better. It will help us build something on campus. There is a lot more interest from kids who aren’t playing, who need to be out there playing, but chose not to because there wasn’t any level of success.”
And it’s why Friday’s outcome against Narbonne (2-8) will be even more important, since the next game at Taft will be in a brand new stadium.
“It’s going to be special on that field,” Bristow said. “But we don’t want it to be the ‘last’ game; we still want to play for a championship.”