By Kyle LoJacono
Gaither senior wide receiver Carlo Perello remembers the first few practices during last spring.
They were the first with new coach Jason Stokes, and it didn’t take long for Perello to learn he was the right man to lead the Cowboys’ football program into the future.
“He went all out for us this year,” Perello said. “We all appreciate what he’s done for us this year and we all love him. I wish he was here three years ago and we’d have been a whole different team.”
Perello was one of 25 seniors on Gaither’s roster Stokes had to win over in order to get the squad a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.
“It’s hard to win over seniors being a first-year coach, but they deserve all the credit for buying into what we were doing,” Stokes said. “They were hungry to win. They were tired of the past and wanted something fresh. They didn’t fight me. As far as the discipline and the commitment, they gave their all for me and their teammates and themselves.”
Perello has seen Gaither at its lowest. His first year on the varsity squad was 2009, a year when the Cowboys went 1-9 and were outscored 334-66.
Gaither went 3-7 last year and lost two of its first three games this season before winning eight of its last 10 contests to finish the season.
The improvement allowed the Cowboys, who finished last in their district the previous two seasons, to play in the month of December for only the second time in the program’s 27-year history.
“We started off slow, but as we started to win we realized we were a great team,” Perello said. “We started believing in ourselves. We all bought into the new offense and the changes made and we all wanted to be here.”
Stokes was sad to see Perello and the other seniors’ high school careers ended on a 42-14 loss to Lakeland in the Class 7A regional finals, but said they helped lay the groundwork for something building in northern Hillsborough County.
“We’re going to take this momentum and just roll into the offseason,” Stokes said. “Get into the weight room and all our offseason things we have going on. I’m excited about next year’s team already.”
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