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Taft Blitz Staggers Cleveland : Toreadors Rally, Clinch Title, 25-22

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

For 3 quarters, this game could have been used as a classic example of truth in advertising. Taft and Cleveland highs took turns bashing each other up the middle with their running backs. Taft was outslugging Cleveland by 5 points entering the fourth quarter Thursday at Taft.

And then, as the skies grew cloudy and threatened rain, lightning in the form of a 28-point barrage came from nowhere as Taft had to rally to defeat Cleveland, 25-22, in a game that decided the West Valley League championship.

If ever there was a complete ballgame packed into 12 minutes, this was it.

Taft (6-3, 5-2 in league play) scored 13 points in the last 3 minutes and dodged a final bullet from Cleveland kicker Frank Diana--who missed a 49-yard field goal by mere inches with 2 seconds left--to take its third consecutive league title.

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“I think you better find somebody else to talk to about this one,” Taft Coach Tom Stevenson said. “I don’t know what to say about what I just saw.”

Description was not easy for anyone. Cleveland took a seemingly commanding 22-12 lead with 5:33 to play on a 60-yard run by Sean Burwell, who finished with a game-high 169 yards in 14 carries. From there, however, Taft pulled its seldom-used passing attack from the mothballs and shredded the Cleveland secondary.

“We choked,” Cleveland Coach Steve Landress said. “We couldn’t cover a receiver if he was tied to our belt.”

Improbably, Taft rallied behind senior quarterback Rich Cosentino, who had completed only 40.2% of his passes in Taft’s first 8 games. After Burwell’s run, Cosentino led the Toreadors on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that he capped with a perfect 14-yard lob pass to receiver Uda Walker in the right corner of the end zone. A 2-point conversion run by Kelvin Byrd failed, but Taft had closed to within 22-18 and there was still 2:31 to play.

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Taft did what everyone in the house expected when kicker Adam Zutler tapped an onside kick to the left side of the Taft line. It bounced off the hands of Cleveland’s Kosal Uch and was recovered by Taft’s Kevin Reeves at the Taft 49.

“We had all the right guys up there,” Landress said. “We just didn’t execute.”

Cosentino again went to work. Using the roll-out pass to perfection, he engineered a drive that included passes of 23 yards to Walker and 11 yards to Doug Kougher to move Taft to the Cleveland 14 with 1:43 left.

A face-mask penalty on the Cavaliers (5-4, 4-3) moved Taft to the 7, and, after an incomplete pass, a pair of 2-yard runs by Byrd and an offside penalty against Cleveland, Byrd bulled his way in from 1 yard to give Taft a 25-22 lead. Byrd finished with a hard-fought 126 yards in 31 carries and scored twice on 1-yard runs.

“We’re going back to the passing game,” Stevenson cracked. “Forget all that running stuff.”

Cleveland, however, did not roll over. After Cleveland returned the kickoff to its 43, receiver Jermain O’Bannon took a lateral from quarterback Lee Gatewood (7 of 9 for 161 yards and a touchdown) and fired a pass up the left sideline to Burwell for a 26-yard gain. With 10 seconds left, Cleveland sent in Diana, who had missed from 38 yards in the third quarter. The kick was dead center but fell inches short of the crossbar.

It might have given Cleveland an unlikely tie, but some felt Taft should never have been allowed back in the game.

“I guess we thought we had it won,” said Burwell, who also starts at safety. “I don’t know what happened.”

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It took roughly 15 seconds for the fourth-quarter assault to begin. With his team trailing, 12-7, Gatewood connected with receiver Pat Bryant on a slant pattern for a 78-yard touchdown on the first play of the quarter. On Cleveland’s next possession, Burwell raced 60 yards for a 22-12 lead, capping a 4-play, 97-yard drive.

Taft, however, dusted off its passing game and fired away. There were no other options.

“When they hit the home run like that, you have to come back with your own,” Stevenson said. “That’s what we tried to do.”

Cosentino said--with a straight face--that Taft had not written off the passing game this season, just de-emphasized it. They were just picking their spots, he said. And tight spots at that.

“We’ve been working on it,” Cosentino said. “You can’t let everybody see it every game.”

It appears that once every 4 quarters will do just fine.


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