By Kyle LoJacono
The Gaither football team tasted victory only three times during the 2010 season, seven less than the squad won during the two-day USF Sling and Shoot tournament.
The Cowboys reached the championship game of the annual 7-on-7 summer event, knocking off Class 4A state runner-up Armwood in the semifinals. Pasco defeated Gaither 27-12 in the title game on July 24, but the northern Hillsborough County team turned some heads during the two-day event.
“It really helps with the kids’ confidence to go out and do well,” said first-year Gaither coach Jason Stokes. “These kids have really put in the work to get better and I’m very proud of the way they performed.”
Sophomore quarterback Alex McGough ran Gaither’s offense less than a month after transferring from Wesley Chapel. The Cowboys finished the 51-team event with only two losses.
“He is very calm no matter what is happening around him,” Stokes said. “He’s still new to the offense and is making mistakes that a young kid makes, but I was really impressed with what he was able to do.”
Junior Shug Oyegunle, who has been the Cowboys starting quarterback since his freshman year, played slot receiver during the tournament. Stokes said two of the squad’s runner backs were out of town during the event, so they needed to move Oyegunle out from under center.
Stokes said the team will have packages where both are on the field during the season. He added that Oyegunle has been a “true teammate” about working with McGough.
“He’s been totally receptive to any position change and I commend him for that,” Stokes said. “A lot of kids would probably have made a big deal about the switch, but he’s done exactly what we’ve asked. He’s been Alex’s biggest supporter in the huddle and has been working with him to help him learn the offense. I can’t say enough about what the two of them are doing together and with the whole offense.”
Oyegunle, who was named the team’s offensive MVP for his work during the spring season, was a receiver at the start of his freshman year before becoming a quarterback.
Stokes said senior wide receiver Carlo Perello has also impressed him during the 7-on-7 summer season and at the Sling and Shoot. Perello was given the coaches award for his efforts during the spring season.
McGough hit Oyegunle to put the Cowboys up 6-0 to start the semifinals contest against Armwood, a lead they would never give up.
Gaither won the contest 33-20; a surprise considering the Hawks defeated the Cowboys 49-7 in their regular season game last October.
“That was really big for us,” said senior defensive back Tyler McCollum, who was named team MVP during the spring. “We haven’t beaten Armwood since I’ve been here and it lets as all know we’re during the right things to get ready. We’re all excited about the fall.”
Pasco flipped the script on Gaither, taking an early lead in the championship game. McGough had scoring passes of 40 and 45 yards, including one to Oyegunle, but the Pirates defense forced two interceptions.
“I was really surprised,” said Pasco senior wide receiver and defensive back Trey Dudley-Giles. “We come from a small county, and to come out and win something big like that was a surprise. This really gives us a lot of hope that we can win against anyone.”
Besides Gaither and Pasco, other area teams that played in the event included Land O’ Lakes, Freedom and Carrollwood Day. The Pirates and Gators were the only two Pasco County squads in the tournament.
The Cowboys had to settle for second place, but the squad seems to have momentum coming out of the Sling and Shoot. Gaither won the 16-team Gulfcoast FCA 7-on-7 Challenge at Braden River High in Bradenton on July 26, defeating Palmetto 34-21 in the finals.
Senior linebacker Josh Scarberry pulled in an interception that ensured the tournament championship for Gaither. McGough and the Gaither offense scored touchdowns on every possession in the final three contests.
“It showed us the Sling and Shoot wasn’t a fluke,” McCollum said. “We know it’s not the same as real football, but it gives us even more confidence.”
Gaither will play its kickoff classic football game at home against Sickles on Friday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. The Cowboys will host Alonso on Friday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m. for their regular season opener.