Jaime Gallegos had never played football before high school. He made the team at Taft his freshman year, but barely played.
Over the past four years Gallegos, a 5-9, 170-pound senior, built himself into a difference-maker for the Eagles. His progression as a player mirrored and helped inspire his school’s rise from obscurity to city champs.
“I’m so proud of that kid,” Taft coach John Tsarouchas said. “After his freshman year we thought he would either be a really great player or he would die trying. He has an incredible work ethic. Early in my time here he helped set the stage. He established a culture of hard work. I’m so proud of him for coming up big tonight and making those plays.
Gallegos had two key interceptions in the Eagles’ 29-13 win against Solorio in the city championship game Friday at Lane.
“Not really playing freshman year motivated me,” Gallegos said. “I worked so hard in the off-seasons and did everything I could and put in the time to get better.”
Public League schools drop into the city tournament when eliminated from the state playoffs. For some teams the event is a let down. But that is a matter of perspective. This win is huge for Taft, a moment of validation for Tsarouchas’ program.
“I’m sure in the next 48 hours what we did tonight is going to sink in,” Tsarouchas’ said. “I’m incredibly proud of these kids who bought into all the crazy stuff we were saying four years ago that we were going to be good and this wasn’t going to be your mom and dad’s Taft.”
It is Taft’s first title since 1972. The Eagles qualified for the Class 8A state playoffs and lost to highly-regarded Oswego on the road in the first round.
“We still have a long way to go,” Tsarouchas said. “We’ve been searching for some real tangible proof or a win that said we were better, that this was a new Taft. We have a lot of room to improve and we intend to do that.”
The Eagles (7-5) overpowered Solorio (7-5) at the line of scrimmage in the second half. The Sun Warriors have just 20 players and wore down as the game went on.
Senior Roberto Salgado had 20 carries for 111 yards and one touchdown. His breakout game came in Week 9 against Hubbard when he rushed for 139 yards. He followed that up with 100 yard plus performances in the Oswego loss and a city playoff win against Westinghouse.
“He’s been huge for us lately,” Tsarouchas said. “But we have a lot of guys we like to get the ball too. This is a great team, not just a handful of good players.”
Junior Dexter Stigall IV had 15 carries for 84 yards and two touchdowns. His 11 yard touchdown run with 6:29 to play in the third quarter gave the Eagles the lead for good at 15-13.
Kobe Collins also had two interceptions for the Eagles, who had five total in the game.
Taft quarterback Daniel Loch, a sophomore, was 6 for 12 for 99 yards.
Solorio senior Messiah Travis, a NIU recruit, had seven catches for 65 yards.
The Eagles will face St. Rita in the Prep Bowl at noon on Friday at Gately Stadium. The Mustangs beat De La Salle.
“Everyone in their hearts knew we had to make school history and that is what we did tonight,” Salgado said.