TAFT -- Shafter High's seniors came into the year without many varsity wins to their credit.
However, on Friday night it was their stellar play that carried the suddenly imposing Generals to a dramatic 21-19 South Sequoia League victory over Taft at Martin Memorial Stadium.
"We knew coming in that it was going to be a tough game," Shafter coach Ricky Ishida said. "Taft, you know, they're better than what their record says."
Shafter (6-0, 2-0 SSL) built a 21-6 second-half lead and held on as Taft quarterback Vaughn Richardson's would-be, game-tying two-point conversion pass fell incomplete in the back of the end zone with 1:15 remaining.
Leading 14-6, the Generals ate up nearly the entire third quarter with a 17-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard Ricardo Acosta touchdown run.
That score proved to be the difference.
“A lot of the credit goes to our senior leadership,” Shafter coach Ricky Ishida said. “We have a line that works well together and helps provide team unity. They fought together and they knew it was on them tonight. And so they won the game for us tonight. It was great to get a victory.”
Taft (2-4, 1-1 SSL) didn’t go down without a fight.
Two plays after Acosta’s scoring run, Richardson connected with Steven Gee for a 66-yard touchdown pass.
Later, the Wildcats kept their hopes alive, when a 15-play, fourth-quarter Shafter drive ended with a turnover on downs at the Taft 16-yard line.
Following a Richardson interception and quick Shafter possession, Taft got one more chance with 2:33 remaining in the game.
Richardson made the most of it, driving the Wildcats 71 yards in six plays, the final one ending with him scoring on a 5-yard quarterback draw.
But on the verge of the game going to overtime, Shafter’s defense left no one open for Richardson on the ensuing 2-point try.
“I know that our record is what it is,“ Taft coach Jaruud Prosser said. “But these kids work hard. My heart hurts for them because they have worked hard and I feel they deserve better but nothing is given to you. You have to work for it and they’re understanding that.”
Richardson completed 12 of 28 passes for 201 yards. Gee had seven receptions for 121 yards.
Shafter quarterback Kyle Millwee was 15-of-27 for 159 yards.
“We just tried to fight the whole game,” Millwee said. “It got a little tough in the second half but we held on at the end.”
Shafter started fast behind the accurate passing of Millwee and strong running by Barton.
Millwee began the game connecting on 10 of his first 12 attempts for 113 yards.
Barton had seven carries for 44 yards in the first half, including a 20-yard touchdown run that capped off the Generals’ opening possession.
Down 14-0 after a Millwee 13-yard touchdown scamper early in the second quarter, Taft finally got its offense rolling late in the first half.
Matua Iakopo took a handoff and busted through the line, then sidestepped a defender before racing 35 yards for a Wildcats touchdown with 2:53 left in the half.
That was by far the longest play of the first half by Taft, which was out-gained 187-100 by Shafter during the first two quarters.
Richardson and Millwee combined for 38 pass attempts in the first half.