A year ago the Taft 7-12 football team found themselves in a shootout against the Harrisburg Eagles.
Last Friday night was a stark difference, as the two teams played a grind it out style of football that featured more memorable defensive plays than offensive scores.
The Tigers hosted their season opener on Sept. 6 against the visiting Eagles in a rematch of last year’s game that resulted in a 60-29 victory for Harrisburg. The two teams seemed to be shaking off the first game jitters in the first quarter, as neither team was able to get on the board.
But as the clock ticked down in the first quarter, the Tigers began marching down the field thanks to completed passes from junior quarterback Antonio Suarez to junior Fco Ramos and senior Trenton Fisher, as well as powerful running by Trenton Hall.
As the second quarter began, Suarez located junior JJ French near the pylon and completed the pass for Taft’s first score of the season.
Junior William Calderon tacked on the extra point and the Tigers had a 7-0 lead.
Harrisburg wasted no time answering back, as they returned the proceeding kickoff all the way back for a score. After a failed extra point, the Eagles found themselves unable to return to the end zone for the rest of the night.
“The highlight of the game was how well our defense played,” head coach Jake Tolan said. “Our defensive play is much improved from last year and hopefully will be a staple of our football team throughout the season.
"With our offense still developing and finding its rhythm, our defense will keep us in games this year and give us a chance to win in every game.”
The Tigers once again found the endzone in the second when senior Logan Gilleo took a swing pass from Suarez and scampered down the sideline for a touchdown. After Calderon’s extra point, Taft took a 14-6 lead.
In the second quarter, tempers flared for both teams during a post-play scuffle the ultimately led to an ejection and several penalties.
In an emotionally charged game, coach Tolan was able to rally his guys and use that instant in the game as a teaching moment.
“We have talked with our team all week about keeping our composure and being disciplined,” Tolan said. “We unfortunately lost a player during the game, but I was really proud of how the team didn’t let that affect their mindsets and how we didn’t have a drop off in execution with the players that we asked to step in to fill that void.”
Throughout the night, the Eagles’ offense was threatening to score on numerous long drives. But the Tiger defense never gave in and came up with big plays like the two first half interceptions by junior Darius Smith. Smith also had a fumble recovery late in the game and senior teammate Jordan Hall also had a fumble recovery and interception during the game.
In the end, Taft held tough and grinded out a 14-6 victory in the second half to improve to 1-0.
“I am so proud of my team,” Tolan said. “They played well, believed in themselves and fought hard as a team. We made many mistakes tonight that we can learn from and get better at, but overall I’m happy we were able to come away with a win.”
This week the Tigers face off against 3A Sutherlin High School. Last year, Taft’s lone win came against the Bulldogs in a 14-13 game. This year, Tolan expects Sutherlin to come out swinging.
“We anticipate another hard fought game this Friday against Sutherlin,” Tolan said. “We know Sutherlin is a run first team who uses a three back wing-T offensive formation. We understand and expect this matchup to be another physical, four-quarter grind, but we fully expect to travel to their house and compete.
“We feel we are a different team this year with something to prove, and hope to continue playing good football this Friday on the road.”
Friday’s game in Sutherlin is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.