By Kyle LoJacono
It wasn’t the prettiest game ever played, but the Gaither football team came out on top 17-14 in its Class 7A regional semifinals contest at Tampa Bay Tech (TBT) on Nov. 25.
“That was the ugliest game I’ve ever been a part of,” said first-year Cowboys coach Jason Stokes. “It wasn’t the way we drew things up, but we came out with a win.”
Gaither (9-3) forced five Titans (8-4) turnovers, but gave up four including an interception returned 20 yards for a score by Armani Sampson on the first possession of the second half to give TBT a 14-10 lead it maintained until 9:54 remaining. That’s when Cowboys wide receiver Carlo Perello made the game-changing play.
Perello, who finished with five catches for 208 yards, caught a slant pass and shed a pair of would-be Titans tacklers. The senior turned up the field and looked as if he would run into another defender, but Perello leapt over the stunned TBT player. After that it was off to the races to complete the 73-yard scoring strike to put Gaither up for good.
“I just don’t want to go home,” Perello said. “I knew I had to do something in the game to get us going.”
It was the second long scoring catch for Perello, following a 76-yard touchdown near the end of the first half. The Cowboys had struggled to produce much offense until Perello’s first touchdown, posting 6 yards of total offense before the explosive play.
“The whole sideline changed after that first play when we scored, and then the whole sideline changed again after he scored again,” Stokes said. He then added, “We had some injuries on the offensive line, so we tried to go to our quick passing game. (TBT) did a really good job adjusting and we couldn’t get anything going running the ball. … It was a war of attrition and thank God the Cowboys found a way.”
Gaither sealed the win when defensive back Amani Oruwariye picked off Titans quarterback Aaron Midthus in the end zone with 38 seconds remaining.
“I was confident I was going to make the play,” Oruwariye said. “Once I got it in my hands I knew the game was over.”
The victory sends the Cowboys to the regional finals for just the second time in the program’s 27-year history. The nine wins is also more than the eight recorded by the squad during the previous three seasons combined.
“It is unbelievable what these kids have done this year,” Stokes said. “I’m so proud of them. The first thing I told them when I came here was you need to buy in. Either get on board with us or don’t be part of our program. We’re going to do things differently, and you may not understand why at first but just trust your coaches. Just buy into what we’re doing and we’re going to have success.”
The playoff contest was rematch of a game TBT won 17-14 earlier this season. The win made the Titans Class 7A-District 7 champions and Gaither the runner-up.
“You know district champs, they can have that,” Perello said. “We’re going for regional champs right now.”
Cowboys linebacker Matt Williams, who forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and recorded a sack against the Titans, said the chance to avenge that regular season loss was motivation.
“Coach told us all week if we lose, then they’re going to own us until next year,” Williams said. “We’d have to wait 365 days to play them again. Coach said we just can’t let them beat us twice in one season, so we came out here and played with our hearts.”
Gaither’s defense limited TBT to 176 yards of total offense while forcing five turnovers and recording three sacks.
“I love playing in this defense,” Oruwariye said. “Our defensive coordinator coach (Brian) Del Valle makes great schemes each games. If we do our assignments we know we’ll make plays.”
Gaither had chances to put up more points in the contest. The Cowboys missed field goals of 34 and 37 yards. They also had a fumble return for a touchdown by Williams called back because of a block-in-the-back penalty and also allowed 10 sacks to go with their four turnovers.
The sloppy play was similar to the first game between the squads.
“You know I don’t think we learned anything from the first game,” Stokes said. “The whole point was to come in here and cut down on the turnovers and mistakes, and we did nothing but that. If we don’t improve it’s going to be a long ride home from Lakeland next week.”
Gaither travels to Lakeland on Friday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. The winner earns a spot in the 7A state final four.