By Kyle LoJacono
The Gaither football program made three straight playoff appearances from 2006-2008, but has won only four games since then including a 3-7 record in 2010.
Nine-year Cowboys coach Mark Kantor resigned the post in December after learning administration wanted to go in a different direction with the program. Jason Stokes was picked to lead Gaither in January and thinks the program is very close to getting back to the top.
“The big thing with any teenager is getting consistency out of them,” Stokes said. “They played with Plant last year and beat Plant City, which were both playoff teams. It shows there is the talent. Us as coaches just need to bring it out of them. Limit the mistakes and help them play consistently and correctly.”
The strength of the team the last two years was its defense, which returns many of its starters including junior linebacker Josh Scarberry.
Scarberry had a team-high 75 tackles and nine sacks in 2010 while adding one interception, three passes defensed and causing three fumbles. He was named the team defensive MVP and the All-Laker/All-Lutz News Defensive Player of the Year following the season.
“Our defense has been together for a long time,” Scarberry said. “We’re all mostly seniors and know what the other guys are going to do. We work together really well. … I think we’re a lot stronger on defense. We lose some very good players like Chad Hannah and Xavier Wynn, but I see the younger guys making a lot of improvements. We’re looking really good and I’m excited to see what we can do in the fall.”
While the coaching staff has changed, the defense unit gets back a familiar face. Brian DelValle, a 2002 Gaither graduate, was the Cowboys defensive coordinator in 2009, but spent last season as Land O’ Lakes’ co-defensive coordinator.
“I was really excited when I heard coach DelValle was coming back,” Scarberry said. “We had good
chemistry my sophomore year. Coach Kantor left and we were close, but having coach DelValle back helps with the change.”
Stokes also brought back five coaches from the 2010 staff to help with continuity, including offensive line coach Jeff Ditman.
“Coach Ditman can convey a lot of what we did last year to our new coach, so it will help us not miss a step,” said junior left tackle Matt Finnesy. “I’ve had him for three years, so I’m really happy he’s still with us.”
The biggest changes for Gaither will be with the offensive system.
“We really want to be balanced,” Stokes said. “Last year they were very pass heavy on the offense.”
Stokes predicts that balanced attack will help the offense gain and score more than the 211 yards and 11.5 points per game the Cowboys had in 2010. It will also help sophomore quarterback Shug Oyegunle, who had 1,412 passing and 287 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns last season.
“Shug is a pass and run threat, but we have other guys who can get things done running the ball,” Stokes said. “We want the other defense to be worried about all our weapons and not just focus on Shug.”
Oyegunle became Gaither’s starting quarterback halfway through his freshman season. He said he is very comfortable running the offense despite the change in scheme.
“I have a lot of experience,” Oyegunle said. “I’ve seen a lot of different things in games and practices and the coaches have been working with me for awhile now. I feel much more comfortable than a year ago.”
Oyegunle will need to find some new options at wide receiver as the Cowboys lose four to graduation, including Josh Bultron and his team-high 371 yards and four scores. One of those new options could be junior Mitch McNall.
“It’s going to be hard because we have some big senior receivers leaving, but me, Carlo Perollo and some other guys have been working hard to replace them,” McNall said. “We need to get better because we’re losing a lot.
“It helps having a quarterback with a lot of experience,” McNall continued. “We’re excited about that because we already have good timing and he knows how we’re going to run our routes.”
The Cowboys move into Class 7A-District 7 with Chamberlain, Freedom, Steinbrenner, Tampa Bay Tech and Wiregrass Ranch. Of those teams, only Tech (7-5) and Wiregrass Ranch (6-5) finished with winning records last year.
“We’re really excited about the new district and our new schedule,” Scarberry said. “We think we can take that next step.”
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches.
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