By Kyle LoJacono
The Gaither football team found itself trailing 23-7 at halftime against Durant in the Class 7A regional quarterfinals on Nov. 18 but fought back to win the program’s first playoff game since 2007.
The Cowboys (8-3) scored 31 second-half points off three touchdown passes by quarterback Alex McGough, a 19-yard run by Shug Oyegunle and a 27-yard field goal by Dalton Gilson to win 38-30.
“At halftime we told them listen ‘you’re champions, but you’re just not playing like it,’” said first-year Gaither coach Jason Stokes. “Throw everything else out the window. You just have to execute.’ We told them ‘do you want to go home and turn your gear in tonight, or do want to keep playing?’”
Stokes’ words hit home as the Cowboys were a different squad coming out of the locker room, picking up 305 yards of total offense after halftime.
Gaither’s defense sacked Cougars (7-4) quarterback Nick Fabrizio four times and picked off three of his passes. Safety Eddie Pastrana took the first interception 35 yards for his squad’s first points, while the final two found the hands of cornerback Tyler McCollum.
McCollum said he wasn’t expecting to pick off two passes against Durant’s run-heavy read-option offense, but was happy there were a few attempts to his side of the field.
“If they were going to throw my way I was going to do everything I could to pick them off and make them pay,” McCollum said.
McCollum’s first interception came on the Cougars’ drive after the Cowboys had taken a 31-30 lead, giving them the ball with 3:49 remaining in the game. Durant had one timeout left and Gaither would have been able to run out the clock with one first down, but Oyegunle decided a one-point victory was too close.
“When I saw Tyler get that pick, I knew it was show time,” Oyegunle said. “I told Alex get me the ball and I’d get in the end zone.”
McGough did find him on the fifth play of the drive, connecting on a screen pass that Oyegunle took 62 yards for the game’s final points.
“When I got the ball in my hands I was just thinking touchdown touchdown touchdown,” Oyegunle said.
The Cowboys started the game slowly. Stokes said the start was partially due to arriving late after their bus got stuck in traffic, forcing them to cut warm-ups short.
“We basically came out the bus, touched our toes and played football,” Stokes said. “We were totally out of whack.”
Gaither was also dealt an early blow on its second possession when McGough was forced out of the game after Durant defender Chris Heald put a big hit on his throwing arm. The Wesley Chapel High transfer sat out much of the first half, but came back to record 235 yards on 14-of-29 passing, including scoring strikes of 6 and 59 yards to Demarcus Sexil and Carlo Perello, respectively.
Oyegunle filled in for McGough, going 3-of-8 passing for 72 yards. He also added 107 yards on four catches, 24 yards on four carries and another 27 on a kick return.
“It was a total effort,” Stokes said. “We got some good runbacks on special teams, got some key picks and we’ve got some big-time players on offense. When it comes down to it, when the rubber meets the road, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
The Cowboys travel to district rival Tampa Bay Tech on Friday, Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m. for the regional semifinals. The Titans defeated Gaither 17-14 on Nov. 4 on a last-minute field goal.