Restoring The Feeling
When the Toreadors held their spring showcase, it was evident amongst the alumni and supporters in attendance that this was not the Toreadors that many familiar with the program were accustomed to watching in recent years. From the urgency with which the team switched in and out of drills, to the high-energy music blaring from the speakers down on the field, the energy had shifted around the team. The competition between the lines was fierce, and the smack-talking amongst the coaches signified that even though it was spring, the spirit of competition was front and center.
“That’s just how we are as a unit and a coaching staff,” said Fred Emerson, the point man behind the new direction of the Toreadors. “We want to set a tone that everybody on the field and watching us understands. We aren’t here to just play; we have a desire to dominate.”
When the Head Coach position became available after the 2022 football season, it was clear that a golden opportunity had presented itself for the right coach and staff to take advantage of. The Taft Toreadors had shown signs that there was still some magic left at the school despite the revolving door of coaches for the better part of a decade and the hardships of being misplaced for an entire season due to the renovation of their facilities. To former Head Coach Jeff Kearin’s credit, the Toreadors were defiant in the face of those tough circumstances in 2022 and even pulled an upset on the road in the first round of the Division II playoffs against a senior-laden Monroe squad last November.
After Kearin’s departure after the season, the school set out to find a coach who could lead the team into the future and hopefully bring back a standard of winning that had been associated with Taft years ago. The program dominated league competition in the mid to late 2000s, filling up the school’s trophy case as well as the stat books. From 2004 to 2010, the Toreadors smashed through their competition in the West Valley. Taft complied an impressive 32-3 record against league foes during that seven-year span, walking away with five league championships and never finishing lower than second place.
In recent years, Birmingham has asserted itself as the model program not only in the West Valley League but as the king of the City Section. The Patriots have won 34 section contests in a row and don’t look like a team that has intentions of slowing down. While Birmingham has dominated, the programs at Granada Hills and Cleveland have also become strong contenders in the West Valley and boast game-changing talent as well. Despite that fact, Emerson is not shying away from the challenge of returning the Toreadors back to prominence. “Maybe it's because I'm not originally from here, but I don’t approach this challenge with any fear of any team we have to compete against, including Birmingham,” said Emerson. “ I’m a city ball kid at heart, and when you come from the city the mentality is all about being ready to take on all challengers no matter what.”
The initial challenge for Emerson after he was hired in the winter was to evaluate his roster and figure out what he had to work with. The 2022 version of the squad may have underwhelmed record-wise, but the effort the group put forth in the postseason was an indicator that the team had plenty in the cupboard as far as gifted players were concerned. “I knew they had talent because I saw the team up close and personal in the playoffs as part of Kennedy’s staff,” said Emerson on the potential of the Taft roster. “But until you get in and evaluate, you just don’t know what you have. Luckily, we saw that there were some special kids in the program.”
The key for Emerson was getting those players to stick around for a chance to be part of the foundation of a new direction for the future. “The first thing I did once I was hired was to meet with the team to let them know this was their team. I'm not looking for the next gig, I'm ecstatic for the opportunity to build a legacy and hope to coach here long enough for my son to play here,” said Emerson. “I think the kids felt my energy, and I laid out what my goals were. I laid out to them the great history of the Taft program, and the fact that we haven’t been on top in over a decade was unacceptable to me. The kids needed to know that they were in good hands, and I felt them buy in immediately to what we wanted to accomplish.”
If you plan on taking on the city’s best, you need horses to ride into battle. What Emerson found out was there were a few thoroughbreds ready and waiting to have their potential tapped into on his roster. On the varsity level alone, the Toreadors are three deep in the backfield, led by bruising running back Micheal Mansaray. The senior tailback will bell cow for their offense, but if you think the Toreadors are just a “three yards and a cloud of dust” outfit, you would be sadly mistaken. This iteration of the Taft team will be more likely to spread it out all over the field and try to create mismatches to exploit. Junior split back Ledgend Wilson is a walking mismatch for teams to deal with. Wilson was a tailback primarily in 2022, but in Emerson’s offense, the dynamic young player will be featured in a multitude of ways that the opposing coaches will have to figure out what he's going to do on any given play. The offense will also feature a gifted wideout in 5’9” senior Lior Lesham. While not the biggest guy on the field, his speed, catching ability, and precise route running will make him a nightmare to deal with. At the point of this attack will be senior quarterback Devon Conroy, whose ability to throw accurately and make plays with his legs will keep the defense off-balance all season. “The Air Raid will be in full effect when we take the field this season,” said Emerson about the potential of his offense. “It’s a complex offense to pick up, but if all the talent gets on the same page, we might shock some people this year.”
But don’t sell the other side of the ball short. The Taft defense has playmakers on all three levels, including senior cornerback Amir Dutt, who will be tasked with blanketing their opponents' top targets, and standout safety Dakota Garner, whose playmaking instincts should have the Toreadors creating turnovers all season long.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Taft program's revamp is the fact that no player will play both sides of the ball. With 60 players on the varsity level and 11 coaches on staff, Emerson has decided that the best approach to fast-track player development is for every kid in the program to play one dedicated position with position-specific coaching. “For what we want to achieve week to week, it will be better for players to know that their focus is on getting better at the nuances of your position every day as well as hoping that it will help us stay healthier,” said Emerson.
Coach Emerson and the Toreadors will get a chance to see exactly where they are in week zero when they break the seal on their brand-new facilities with a tough matchup against Westlake. “We are so excited to attack this season head-on and see what we have,” said Emerson about his expectations. “We have been preparing for this opportunity to set a new standard and show everyone that Taft is ready to challenge the best that the city has to offer.”