Nick DiPadova didn't want to do it, but did he really have a choice?

His football coach, Troy Starr, was looking him in the eye and making a request that sounded quite a bit like an order.

Although Starr had never seen DiPadova throw a pass or so much as take a snap, the coach wanted his

sophomore receiver to change positions. To quarterback.

"I just kind of looked at him and said, 'OK,' " DiPadova recalled.

That was two years ago.

Tonight at 8 at the Coliseum, DiPadova, Taft High's senior quarterback, will lead his team into the City Section 4-A Division championship game against San Pedro. Both teams have 13-0 records.

It has been a storybook season. DiPadova set a school record with 2,570 passing yards. He has completed 174 of 298 passes (58.4%) for 31 touchdowns, and has thrown only six interceptions. In addition, he has rushed for 231 yards and 17 touchdowns, leading Taft to its first appearance in a large-division final.

The biggest carry came last week in the semifinals against Westchester. With Taft trailing, 8-7, DiPadova took off on a bootleg from the Comet 18-yard line, broke a tackle, juked a second defender and found his way to the end zone with 42 seconds to play for a 15-8 victory.

"Probably only the biggest play in school history," Starr said. "It took a lot of guts. He made a move I didn't know he had in him. I don't think he knew, either."

DiPadova's mental makeup was the first thing Starr considered when looking for a new signal-caller. Starr needed to find a replacement for Dayon Shaw, who graduated after the 1994 season.

One play in the Toreadors' 1994 quarterfinal loss to Dorsey cemented Starr's plan.

DiPadova caught an option pass from tailback Jerry Brown. The ball did everything but quack as it flew end-over-end toward DiPadova, who was met by three defenders as he made the reception.

"He had to stop and wait for it, he was going to get crushed, but he still made the play," Starr said. "I knew after that he would be the guy."

Everything DiPadova did off the field confirmed Starr's judgment:

* Each day before school, he attends a 6:30 a.m. seminary class at a local Mormon church.

* A boy scout since age 11, he earned his final merit badge to become an Eagle Scout earlier this year.

* He carries a 3.8 grade-point average.

* In the summer, he helps his parents run a catering business for commercials, television shows and movie crews, requiring him to be on the set as early as 4 a.m.

When his father, Nick Sr., suffered a minor heart attack two weeks ago, DiPadova had to help out on a weekend assignment.

Even his teammates and friends realize DiPadova is a role model.

"I suppose I do envy him a little bit," said tight end Alex Scheer. "A lot of things he does, they come real naturally. He is a hard worker, but a lot of things come easily to him."

It may look easy to others, but DiPadova spent countless hours learning the skills to play quarterback.

Starr recruited former El Camino Real High and USC quarterback John Mazur to help with DiPadova's development.

At first, DiPadova could barely throw a spiral and his passes were accurate for only 20 yards downfield. But he slowly improved.

"He really didn't want to play quarterback; he still wanted to be a receiver," said DiPadova's father. "But this way, he touches the ball a lot more. He liked it after awhile."

DiPadova's junior season was one of adjustment for a team struggling with inexperience.

The opening game of the 1995 season didn't make it any easier. Taft played at Sylmar, the defending 4-A Division champion.

"I was incredibly nervous before the game, but I felt better after the first play," DiPadova said. "Although it was a running play."

Despite a 27-7 loss to the Spartans, Taft managed a 7-3-1 record and a berth in the 4-A playoffs.

DiPadova improved as the season progressed. He completed 82 of 169 passes for 1,220 yards and nine touchdowns, with nine interceptions.

Mazur became an assistant coach at Valley College this season, but he still works with DiPadova in his spare time and attends almost all of Taft's games.

"I was lucky to get him," Mazur said. "When you teach kids something, a lot of times ego gets in the way. They nod their head and say 'Yeah, I get it' when they don't. Nick isn't like that."

Tonight's game could mark the final time DiPadova plays quarterback. Just 6 feet and 180 pounds, he has been overlooked by most Division I-A schools.

"I'm a little sad about the season ending," DiPadova said. "If it could end like it did against Westchester, that would be the best."

Actually, it would be a little better. DiPadova's 18th birthday is Saturday. Taft's first City title would be quite a present.

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