Central Catholic's Aiden Taylor joined exclusive company this fall, rushing for a 2,128 yards and topping the state in rushing touchdowns with 38. (Samantha Schmidt)

Player of the Year: Central Catholic rode its Pony — Aiden Taylor — to glory

Ron Agostini

It took about three weeks after season’s end for Aiden Taylor’s body to return to normal.

All l the bumps and bruises and worse – what he called a “shifted knee” early in the campaign and a persistent ankle injury later – stalked every stride. To get through 15 games, he underwent early-morning therapy daily and more care both before and after games.

“When it was over, you didn’t realize what you accomplished,” he said this week. “It was a long process, practice to practice, week to week and game to game.”

Aiden Taylor led the Raiders' championship push from both sides of the ball. (Samantha Schmidt)

To Aiden Taylor, the very heartbeat of the 13-2 Central Catholic Raiders, the 2021 season was worth the heavy personal price. FrontRowPreps.com’s Player of the Year dished out the punishment on most nights and didn’t mind the toll later.

He was the area’s most physical football player, a tailback/inside linebacker who seldom left the field. On one series, he was an immovable force, the next an irresistible object. Opponents laid blows on him, then got tagged by him a few minutes later.

Few matched Taylor’s workload. More important, he inspired his teammates every Friday night.

“To see him fight made you fight harder,” said senior teammate Nolan Croasdale, a tenacious receiver/safety. “He made all the little plays that made us successful.”

The only setback that stopped him happened in Game 15, the CIF State 2-AA final at Saddleback College against Mater Dei of Chula Vista. A few moments after he sprinted 79 yards on a 4th-and-1 gamble for a touchdown that drew Central Catholic to within 27-19, he was poked in the eye by a teammate. A fluke mishap ended his season early in the second half of a state championship game.

Minus its Pony — it says “Pony” on his letterman jacket – Central Catholic lost 34-25. Taylor already had rushed for 192 yards and two TDs. What he could have finished with will remain a tantalizing guess.

“I just couldn’t see. It hurt more that I wasn’t out there,” Taylor said. “My vision was blurry until about three days later.”

Taylor’s body of work is not hard to see: 2,128 yards (7.8 yards per carry) and a state-leading 38 rushing touchdowns. There were no shortcuts, no dodged practices and no rests while the defense took over. Rather, he led the defense, calling all the changes and making sure his teammates were aligned right.

“He was the heart and soul of our team. He put the team ahead of himself,” head coach Roger Canepa praised.  “He was a great player and an even better leader.”

The Raiders often did it from an old-school I formation – Taylor, No. 44,  as the tailback supported by 225-pound fullback Julian Lopez (1,387 yards and 19 touchdowns in only 12 games). With Lopez and a huge and rugged offense line charging ahead, Taylor turned 2-yard gains into 8-yarders and more as the game progressed. Finesse wasn’t exactly his strong suit, but smaller corners must have cringed as Taylor pounded toward them.

Central Catholic deployed other weapons, including sophomore quarterback Tyler Paul Wentworth. It was no surprise, however, that opponents focused their attention on Taylor.

Central Catholic's Aiden Taylor had rushed for nearly 200 yards when he was knocked out of the CIF State Bowl game with an eye injury. (Samantha Schmidt)

A case in point was the critical Valley Oak League showdown at Oakdale. Trailing 14-10 at halftime, the Raiders rallied as Taylor broke tackles, spun and powered through the Mustangs’ secondary. On defense, he forced a safety and helped to contain Oakdale’s Wing-T. The Raiders pitched a second-half shutout and won 34-14.

Wins over Manteca and Kimball followed, and Central Catholic survived the demanding VOL gauntlet. Then came the postseason where Taylor only accelerated. He totaled 819 yards and 14 touchdowns in five games.

“I got stronger physically and mentally,” he said. “When you go through it, you don’t think about being tired. You’re into the moment.”

Central Catholic had its easy games but not as many as one might think. The Raiders, who often dressed only about 25 players, weren’t blessed with much depth. They trailed or were tied six times at halftime. Undaunted, they pressed forward.

“When we got Julian back from his injury, it made it easier for me,” Taylor said. “We were able to line up in other formations and do other things. “

The Raiders were extended in the foggy first playoff round by Lodi before they prevailed 38-24  After a cakewalk over Antelope, they found themselves behind Monterey Trail 22-13 at the break at Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium. They responded with what Canepa said was their best football of the season in the second half to win 43-22 for the school’s 20th Sac-Joaquin Section title and their first in Division II.

They needed 281 yards and four touchdowns by Taylor to survive a challenge by Bullard of Fresno 44-41 to capture the D-II AA Regional title.

With that, Taylor and company stamped their own imprint on CC football history.  Today, Taylor prepares for baseball as a CC outfielder, then perhaps football for some college attentive enough to see his talent.

And about all that sacrifice?

“I don’t like to say ‘amazing,’” Canepa said, “but he was pretty special.”