He's Making Run at Big Numbers

Times Staff Writer

After Norco High sophomore running back Toby Gerhart had blistered three Mountain View League defenses for a combined 1,042 yards and 10 touchdowns over a 10-day span, he stood on the sidelines at Corona High and wondered aloud how he might play after a full week's rest.

Hemet learned the answer Friday night in a Southern Section Division V first-round playoff game, and now its season is over.

The Bulldogs held a 13-point lead over third-seeded Norco midway through the fourth quarter before Gerhart brought the Cougars back with two touchdowns to send the game into overtime. In the extra time, Gerhart ran for a 26-yard score that gave Norco a 41-34 victory.

"He's just very driven," Norco Coach Gary Campbell said afterward. "He never gives up. You can see it in the way he runs over people that he's a physically strong kid."

Standout performances -- Gerhart finished with 279 yards rushing, 80 yards receiving and five touchdowns -- are becoming the norm as the 6-foot, 200-pounder positions himself as perhaps Campbell's best running back in 34 years.

Campbell said he envisions Gerhart breaking the school record set by Marcus Guzman, who ranks seventh on the section's all-time rushing list with 6,625 yards from 1997 to '99.

"He's by far the best back we've ever had," Campbell said of Gerhart, "and we've had some great kids."

Despite missing the first three games of the season with tight hamstrings, Gerhart has rushed for 2,140 yards and 22 touchdowns. This, after rushing for 1,182 yards in seven games as a freshman.

Gerhart combines breakaway speed with a relentless approach in which he keeps his legs moving after contact to spin out of tackles and gain additional yards.

His finest work of the season came in Norco's final three league games, which were crammed into 10 days because of postponements stemming from the wildfires that ravaged parts of Southern California.

Against Corona Centennial, the defending Division V champion, Gerhart rushed for 324 yards in a 31-28 upset that ended the Huskies' 19-game league winning streak.

"He's big and fast," Centennial Coach Matt Logan said. "He's got a great offensive line and he reads their blocks really well. He runs extremely hard."

Five days later, Gerhart set a school record with 403 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns as Norco defeated Corona Santiago, 35-21.

Gerhart helped Norco secure its first outright league title since 1995 by rushing for 315 yards and three touchdowns during a 28-27 overtime victory over Corona. Then, and only then, did the grind of the previous 10 days catch up with Gerhart.

"It feels great," he said, "but I'm pretty exhausted."

Campbell said he knew Gerhart had explosive potential, "but to get a 300-yard game to begin with, and then go 300, 400, 300 -- that's phenomenal.... And it wasn't like it was against easy teams."

Said Todd Gerhart, Toby's father: "You don't expect those kinds of numbers."

Perhaps the elder Gerhart, also the running backs coach at Norco, should have raised his expectations, given that he provided his son with an excellent pedigree. Todd Gerhart was a standout running back for Campbell at Norco and went on to play at Cal State Fullerton and with the Denver Gold of the United States Football League.

Todd Gerhart said his son excels in pressure situations because of his experience with youth baseball. Toby played on travel-ball teams that won the North American Tournament of Champions 12-under division in Cooperstown, N.Y., and finished second to Taiwan in another tournament. Toby played catcher but hit leadoff because of his speed.

Gerhart missed a combined seven games at the beginning of his last two seasons because he trained too hard too fast and his developing hamstrings couldn't handle the stress. He began taking yoga this season to increase his flexibility, and the results have been promising.

Bright yet reserved, Gerhart repeated sixth grade to help him mature socially, his father said. Gerhart has more than impressed his teachers at Norco, compiling a 4.6 grade-point average while gaining a reputation as one of the best writers the school has produced.

"He's very quiet in many ways," Assistant Principal John Murray said. "On campus, you would never guess that he was one of our best football players."

Murray laments that, as the administrator in charge of discipline, he won't get to spend much face time with Gerhart.

The defensive coaches at Temecula Chaparral, which plays host to Gerhart and Norco on Friday in the quarterfinals, only wish they faced that problem.

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