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Taft continues to grind along despite lack of success, and touchdowns

Taft continues to grind along despite lack of success, and touchdowns
Though Taft has been outscored 296-0, punter-kicker Jonah Mendelsohn keeps grinding with his teammates. (Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

Lights were dimmed as Woodland Hills Taft High football players sat in silence watching video from their latest defeat. Assistant head coach Aron Gideon, in a firm, explanatory voice, described why the play did not work.

“Instead of blocking 54, the tight end blocks four of his teammates,” he said.

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Yes, it’s been that kind of a season for the once-powerful Toreadors. This is the program that produced Super Bowl champion Steve Smith of the New York Giants. It’s the school where Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints once caught passes.

Taft is 0-5 and has been outscored 296-0.

“You are what the scoreboard says you are,” Gideon said.

The team has used five quarterbacks. The last four were either former receivers or former defensive backs. Perhaps the best passer and player on the team is punter and kicker Jonah Mendelsohn, who just received an offer from Whittier College.

“I can throw, but I’m not allowed to play quarterback,” Mendelsohn said. “I’ve asked.”

His mother and father have made it clear he’s not permitted to be a football player who gets hit.

Smart parents, considering the Toreadors’ struggles. Mendelsohn, however, a feisty 5-foot-9, 155-pound senior, has made two tackles after punts.

During nutrition breaks, questions for football players are very simple: “When are you going to score? When are you going to win?”

What’s intriguing is how resilient and determined these teenagers appear to be despite their slow start.

Mendelsohn has had six head coaches in four years at Taft. That might be one of the reasons the program has deteriorated. One walk-on coach after another has come and gone.

And yet, Mendelsohn says, “I haven’t lost my passion for the game.”

Students haven’t lost their confidence in football, either. In fact, several students came out for the program in the middle of the losing streak.

“We’ll take anybody,” Gideon said.

Students still coming out is a vote of confidence in the coaching staff, led by Gideon, a former UCLA player who was an assistant at West Hills Chaminade and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. He has been the main coaching figure. Former Notre Dame assistant Edward Evans was appointed interim head coach after Matt Holly resigned before fall practice began. Evansdeals with parents, paperwork issues and making final decisions for a varsity staff of four.

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Gideon has no previous coaching experience in the City Section, so he had much to learn: delays in getting players and coaches cleared to participate; players not showing up for practice because they had to take care of a younger brother at home or help their family with work; players reluctant to spend free time watching video; players with no football experience. And yet, he wanted this experience. He wanted to know what it would be like to coach in the City Section.

The schedule has not been kind — five Southern Section opponents.

Starting Friday against Reseda Cleveland, the Toreadors return to playing City Section teams. The chances are good that improvement will come and even points will be scored.

“They’re frustrated without having success,” Gideon said. “They’re emotional about it. They want to get better, but it’s a process about educating them what it takes to be successful.”

There’s no quit among the players or coaches.

“If anything, it’s bringing us together,” Mendelsohn said.

This season can still be a positive experience.

Mendelsohn has already learned a valuable lesson after having six head coaches.

“I’ve learned to never think I’m going to have the same head coach and deal with change,” he said.

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