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High School Football Playoffs

Defensive Stops Make Taft Go : Toreadors Play Washington in Second Round Tonight


WOODLAND HILLS — Tears flowed freely from Taft High football players as they walked off a foggy field at Torrance High last November.

The Toreadors gave up five touchdowns and 300 yards rushing in the first half of a 48-21 loss to Narbonne in the first round of the City Section 4-A playoffs.

Although the Taft defense was very young, with only two prominent seniors, players took the loss hard.

"It was an awful feeling," said linebacker Tyler Brennan. "I couldn't stand to see the seniors crying. The only time I want to see tears is when we're happy because we've won."

In this season's opener against Sylmar, Brennan got his wish.

Taft defenders were again crying as they entered the locker room at halftime. But this time there was joy.

Taft held the Spartans to 77 yards in an overwhelming 30-6 victory that stamped the Toreadors as a 4-A favorite.

Despite a high-powered offense that averages nearly 39 points a game, the heart of the Toreadors can be found among the undersized, but not overmatched, defensive line and linebackers.

Other than defensive tackle Carlos Meza, 6-foot-1 and 265 pounds, no starter or key reserve weighs more than 210 pounds. Most weigh less than 190.

"Other teams might think we're small and duck away from contact and tackling," said linebacker Dionte Hall, a 5-7, 150-pound sophomore. "We don't step away. We tackle just as well as bigger guys."

The Toreadors have the City Section's top defense, especially against the run. In 11 games, Taft has given up 837 yards rushing, an average of 76.1 a game.

That includes 145 yards against Carson, a run-oriented team, in a first-round 4-A playoff game last week.

The defense will face a tougher test tonight, when second-seeded Taft (11-0) plays host to No. 10 Washington in a quarterfinal game at 7 p.m.

The Generals (7-4) exploded for 65 points in a victory over Jefferson using a mixture of the run and pass and featuring several different formations.

That might play right into the hands of Taft's defense. Four times a week, the Toreadors line up against one of the most balanced offenses in the area--the Taft offense.

"Each group makes the other better," Taft Coach Troy Starr said.

Although the Toreadors have had tough defenses--and more size--in Starr's five years, this is the fastest, and best group.

"Speed means so much more than anything else," Starr said. "You can have size, or anything else, but you need to have the speed."

Speed is what hurt the Toreadors against Narbonne. The Gaucho running backs kept beating Taft to the corner out of their double-wing offense and the Toreadors couldn't catch up.

To the Toreadors' credit, they didn't give up. After falling behind 48-0, Taft scored 21 late points and finally stopped the Gauchos.

"It wasn't that frustrating because we played as hard as we could the whole time," Starr said.

To prepare for this season, Starr and defensive coordinator Frank Grossman moved several players from the secondary to linebacker or linebacker to defensive line.

"I didn't want to do it at first," said 6-1, 175-pound senior linebacker Donte Morgan. "I wanted to play free safety. "But they asked me to switch and I gotta do what's best for the team. Now I love it."

Morgan's impact was immediate. He had three sacks against Sylmar and leads the team with eight.

Seniors Lonnel Black (6-foot, 190) and Charles Mason (6-4, 210), two of the most consistent players, were moved from linebacker to defensive line. Clint Evans, a 6-2, 195-pound offensive lineman, became a two-way starter.

Starr knew he had something when the Toreadors scrimmaged shortly before the Sylmar game.

"The defense just dominated," he said. "Either our defense was going to be special or our offense was going to be terrible."

The defense hasn't buckled often. Two weeks after the Sylmar victory, Taft throttled Dorsey, defending City Section champion, 42-6. Other than a 95-yard scoring run, the Dons were held to 24 yards in 21 carries.

"After those games we knew we could do anything," Brennan said. "I mean, we knew we were good, but that made us know it for sure."

In Taft's two close games, deciding plays were made by the defense.

In a 24-21 victory over El Camino Real, Leo Haywood, a 5-10, 175-pound middle linebacker, and Black made key fumble recoveries and tailback Quincy Wright was stuffed on a fourth-and-two play with under four minutes left to seal the victory.

In a 36-29 victory over Kennedy that decided the conference title, Mason forced a fumble by Waking Bailey that was recovered by Brennan to thwart a last-ditch comeback.

As the Toreadors celebrated on the sideline, Narbonne seemed very far away.

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