By Kyle LoJacono
After three straight playoff appearances, the Gaither High football team had a rebuilding year in 2009, but the current group of Cowboys plan on starting another streak this season.
“We’re getting through all the little aches and pains after not having to hit anybody since May,” said Gaither football coach Mark Kantor. “I thought they’ve given outstanding effort and it’s a work in progress. It’s like building a house. Right now we’re just starting to build that house.”
The Cowboys went 1-9 and struggled offensively, scoring 66 points all season while allowing 334. The Cowboys’ lone victory was a one-point win against Wharton High. Offensive leaders like junior running back Devonta Martin vow the scoring will be up in Death Valley Stadium this year.
“It’s been going well,” Martin said of preseason practice. “A lot better than last year. We’re progressing. We’re more aggressive on offense. I know we’re going to do better and win more games, score more touchdowns and score more points.”
Also key to that Cowboys offensive attack is quarterback Shug Oyegunle. The sophomore became Gaither’s starter halfway through last season.
“Truthful I think putting in 110 percent in practice all the time is more of a motivation,” Oyegunle said. “That’s my motivation, just getting better.”
Oyegunle threw 123 passes while completing 42 for 535 yards and three touchdowns, but was intercepted 11 times and lost three fumbles.
“Anytime you get a young kid in there they’re going to have growing pains,” Kantor said. “Just like in the NFL, if you put a first-year guy in there he’ll have growing pains because they’ll see things they’ve never seen before. But he has matured. He’s done a lot of 7-on-7 work. He has progressed enough to where we can do some new things and he’s going to do some outstanding things at quarterback.”
The defense was the team’s strength last season, which at times created a split between the two sides of the ball. Martin played mostly linebacker last season and has seen that division close.
“We’re coming together as a team,” Martin said. “Last year it was offense versus defense. Now we’re coming together and that’ll help us win some games this year.”
Gaither mainly used a variation of the option offense last season, where the quarterback rolls to one side and makes the defense commit to either covering himself or flanking teammates. At the last moment the quarterback either pitches the ball to a teammate or keeps it.
The option is one of the simplest offenses to learn, which was needed to help Oyegunle his first year. Now that he has some experience the Cowboys can be more creative.
“We’re going to be multidimensional,” Kantor said. “It’s not going to just be one thing. They’ll be drop backs, there’ll be rollouts and some option. He’s going to be doing a lot of things at quarterback.”
Martin has also seen progression in Oyegunle.
“He came back and so did a lot of our receivers and most of the offensive line,” Martin said. “So (Oyegunle) got better timing with the receivers from last year to this year. They’ve spent a lot of time in 7-on-7 throwing passes, so they’re on the same page.”
While most of the offense is returning, the defense lost its two biggest leaders, defensive back Jamal Allen and linebacker Derek Bavol, to graduation. Both signed scholarships to play at The Citadel.
Kantor said a number of players will fill the void on the defense, including Angle Alvarez, Josh Scarberry, Levon Brookins, Tyler McCollun, Josh Rife, Chadd Hannah and Xavier Wynn.
Gaither will start the season at its northwest Hillsborough County rival Sickles High Sept. 9.
“We’re so ready,” Oyegunle said. “I don’t think we’ll go 1-9 again. It’s just how we work I know we’ll be better than last year. With the way everyone has been working in the offseason, we will be better.”
-All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches as of Aug. 23. To reach Kyle LoJacono e-mail him at .