City and state trophies wind up in hallway cases inside a building. Newspaper and website headlines fade away, if they are seen at all. So Taft’s brand new football stadium is incredibly significant as a visible landmark of the school’s turnaround.
“A generation ago [Taft] did not have a great reputation,” Taft football coach John Tsarouchas said. “It’s taken us a long time to change that. Hopefully all the people driving by every day see this and have some real tangible proof that Taft is different. It’s not what it used to be.”
Tsarouchas, a Taft graduate, is entering his fourth season as football coach. He’s taken the Eagles to the state playoffs in two of the last three seasons and led the team to the city title last season, its first in 46 years.
Monday was the first day of football practice across the state. It’s doubtful there were many school principals strolling around practices, but Taft principal Mark Grishaber was on the sidelines, even in a light rain. He couldn’t resist a chance to see the first practice on the school’s new field.
“We are a neighborhood school,” Tsarouchas said. “We have a large attendance boundary up here on the Northwest side and we hope to build on that large, tight-knit community we have. Just talking to people in the community, they are excited, they’re curious. They’re saying they are going to come out, regardless of their connection to the school. There is an appetite for Friday night lights in this part of the city.”
The new stadium has stands on just one side and will hold 1,200. They will use temporary lights this season. Permanent lights are expected to be in place next season.
The Eagles should be exciting to watch on the new field. Dexter Stigall IV is one of the Public League’s most exciting players. The senior is primarily a quarterback but will pop up at several positions during the course of a game. Junior Daniel Loch, who sparkled at times last season, will split time at quarterback with Stigall.
“I have a great problem with two future college quarterbacks on the roster,” Tsarouchas said. “As long as I have two I’m going to use two. And everyone is going to have to prepare to defend both of them.”
The Eagles return 11 starters. Senior lineman Demetri Georgopoulos has several college offers and is a state champion powerlifter. Tsarouchas says that sophomore Ryan Porebski, who started at linebacker as a freshman, is “one of the best players we’ve ever had.” He’s bulked up to 210 pounds after playing at 170 last season.
Justin Gniedziejko, a senior receiver/defensive back, is one of the Eagle’s breakout talents. He had six receiving touchdowns and eight interceptions last season.
Taft lost to Oswego in the first round of the Class 8A state playoffs last season and then went on to win the city title. The on-field success is perfectly timed for the arrival of the new field, the first in school history.
“We are going to have a huge crowd and food trucks out here,” Stigall said. “We’ll be ready for it.”
“Our games were at Lane and we are rivals with Lane so I’m sure a lot of kids didn’t want to go there,” Georgopoulos said. “Now kids can walk over and they will be here for a game, they will be loud. It feels awesome. Before last year kids didn’t care, but now they care about Taft football. They want to play for Taft, they want to be part of a winning program.”