James Toland IV set a modest goal for himself before the high school football season started.
Rush for at least 1,000 yards.
The Shadow Hills High School running back had to adjust his expectations after blowing past that total during the fourth game of the year.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “That was faster than I expected.”
He eclipsed 2,000 yards four games later and finished with 2,649 yards on 315 carries and 39 touchdowns as he led the Knights to their first appearance in the CIF Southern Section playoffs.
For his prolific performance and remarkable durability, Toland has been named The Desert Sun Offensive Player of the Year.
“I’ve been here since the first day the school opened, and ever since we started the football program, I wanted to do whatever I could do to help,” said Toland, who has not decided yet where he will go to college. “To do that is a big payoff for me and the school.”
When Shadow Hills opened in 2009, Toland was a freshman. The Knights fielded their first varsity team the following year, finishing 1-9 and getting outscored 427-95. Their record improved to 3-7 last year as Toland rushed for 823 yards on 143 carries. The high left ankle sprain he suffered in the second game hampered him for the rest of the season.
Toland was determined to bulk up during the offseason, adding 20 pounds to his frame. Eager to carry the ball more often, he primarily focused on strengthening his legs and ankles.
As Shadow Hills coach Ron Shipley prepared for the season, he wondered if Toland would hold up and considered which players could join him in the backfield to lessen his workload. But the results of the running back’s workouts were apparent from the outset as Toland rushed for 196 yards on 24 and three touchdowns in a season-opening loss to Jurupa Hills.
His output kept climbing — 239 yards and three scores in the Knights’ second game, followed by 357 yards and five TDs in a 41-35 victory over Ramona.
Then came his most eye-popping stat line in a 50-47 loss to Banning — 25 carries, 490 yards, seven touchdowns.
“I was really tired after that one,” Toland said. “That was a lot of running.”
He twisted his ankle the following week against Xavier Prep, but it didn’t slow him. He gained 234 yards against the Saints and went on to rush for 1,025 yards on 135 carries and 16 touchdowns in five De Anza League game.
“He held together,” Shipley said. “That’s a tribute to his offseason work.”
Toland is most proud of his performance in the regular season finale. To earn a spot in the East Valley Division playoffs, the Knights needed to beat Desert Hot Springs at home. They won 34-7 as Toland racked up 298 yards — his highest total since Banning — and reached the end zone three times.
“That was my favorite game because we played with the most emotion,” he said.
Lining up behind a stronger, more cohesive offensive line this season, Toland never failed to acknowledge his teammates up front, but they didn’t need to do much to spring him.
“Once he got a hole, he exploded through it,” Shipley said. “A couple of things James can do — he can juke you, he can outrun you, but he can also put his head down and lay a hit on you.”
His importance to the Knights’ offense cannot be understated. His 2,649 rushing yards accounted for 61.5 percent of the team’s total offense, and he scored nearly 80 percent of its offensive touchdowns (39 of 49). He had 64.3 percent of the team’s carries (315 of 490).
Although the season ended more than one month ago, the sheer numbers still amaze Shipley.
“He was our entire offense,” he said with a laugh.