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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Senior Tavai leads by example for Mira Costa

By Dave Thorpe, Staff Writer

J.R. Tavai has pretty much done it all as a young player on the Mira Costa football team. He has been a big part of the Mustangs' resurgence after a 2-7-1 season in 2007 that now seems a distant memory, considering what the team has accomplished since then.
Tavai was in on 93 tackles his sophomore year, when Mira Costa won the Bay League and reached the CIF Southern Section Western Division title game, where it lost to Quartz Hill, 14-0.
Last year, Tavai had 92 tackles as a nose guard to tie for the team lead with linebacker Kellen Lockwood, and he added seven sacks for a team that captured the Bay League title and the CIF-SS Western Division championship.
Mira Costa beat Alemany in the championship game, 24-21.
Tavai was named the CIF-SS Western Division Defensive Player of the Year as a penetrating, aggressive, fearless nose guard.
"He combines great quickness with explosiveness and he won't stop chasing the ball," Mira Costa coach Don Morrow said. "And he is screaming for everyone else to do the same."
Now Tavai looks around and he's the elder statesman as a third-year varsity starter. His older brother, Jordan, is now playing for El Camino College after helping Mira Costa win the CIF title last year, and most of the players who helped make last year's team a juggernaut have moved on.
But Tavai and his senior classmates, like Sam Stekol, Jimmy Lee and Bret Darragh, are looking forward to the challenge of keeping Mira Costa among the elite.
"This is my class, we enjoy life together, we've been talking about our senior year since we were freshmen," Tavai said. "Now that it's here, we can't just talk the talk, we need to walk the walk."
As a senior captain and returning star, Tavai's responsibilities have increased. Besides his usual duties of dishing out punishing hits, wrecking havoc in the backfield and breaking tackles on those few occasions he gets to run the ball, Tavai will have even more on his plate.
This season, Tavai is charged with helping along first-year varsity players, showing them the way and being a leader of a team many expect will slide back to the pack after losing so many seniors.
Tavai said he has a message for those doubters.
"I just say, play us first, then talk," Tavai said. "We like talkers, because we like to shut them up on the field."
After getting the call on some key short-yardage situations last year, Tavai is slated to play a bigger role in the offense this year. He had 18 carries for 61 yards and a touchdown last season, and is looking to build on that.
"I'll switch between fullback and running back, and hopefully I'll be a factor as a running back this season," Tavai said. "But we have others guys who are strong. But I hope to get the call in the red zone. I'm just an extra-yarder. I'll get that extra yard."
He'll also prevent opponents from getting that extra yard. The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Tavai returns at nose guard, despite hoping he'd get a chance to move to linebacker.
"I'm playing nose guard because it's best for the team," Tavai said. "I wanted to play linebacker, but I was needed on the D-line and I'll have two fresh guys around me. It's a new beginning. I have to lead."
Tavai figures to be a huge nuisance behind the line of scrimmage.
"I just have to do what I do best, make tackles in the backfield," Tavai said.
And on offense?
"Break tackles and put up some numbers," Tavai said. "Let it all out."
Morrow said Tavai is so good and powerful, at times he appears to be a man among boys.
"He's our special player on defense," Morrow said. "I think he'd be special on anyone's team. Of all the top players around, throughout Southern California, he's got to be one of the top guys."
Tavai already has proven he's a dominant defender, but his impact on offense remains to be seen, if only because he may not be used a ton on offense.
"I'm tempted to use him at tailback, but I feel I have to watch his reps, I don't want to tire him out for defense," Morrow said. "But he will be in our offensive plans."
Tavai said the more carries the better, and that he's eager to get into the end zone more this season.
"He'd play all night long if you let him," Morrow said. "But the No. 1 thing is don't burn him out."
Tavai's ability on defense already has drawn the attention of NCAA Division I recruiters. USC, UCLA, Oregon, Utah State and San Diego State all have shown interest.
"I think he'll wind up with a firm offer from a top college," Morrow said.
"His versatility, passion and love for the game is awesome, and he's really become take-charge now. He was always a leader with his work ethic, now he's out in front of the team, doing it verbally as a captain. It will especially be effective with a young cast around him, they will see his approach and it will benefit them."
Mira Costa opens its season Friday night at home against Loyola, a team it has never beaten under Morrow. The private school usually has several South Bay players on its roster.
"Coach Morrow is something like 0-5 against Loyola, so we know it's going to take a lot of heart from the sophomores and juniors we have on the team, who need to show they belong," Tavai said.

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