By Kyle LoJacono
The 2011 Gaither football team’s 9-4 season and run to the Class
7A regional finals created something lacking from the 27-year program —
The Cowboys went 8-23 from 2008 to 2010 and the players, school
and community were used to losing. Making it to the doorstep of the final four
for just the second time ever was nothing short of shocking.
Now the squad has everyone’s attention.
“We tell them that at least 10 times a day,” said Jason Stokes,
who took over the program 16 months ago. “We talk about the difference between
being a sleeper and having the target. Now we’re going to get everyone’s best
shot. They should welcome that. They earned that respect, but it doesn’t mean
anything unless they do something about it and live up to their potential.”
Sophomore linebacker Matt Williams said the postseason run
changed the atmosphere.
“When coach Stokes came here last year nobody knew what to
expect,” Williams said. “Now we all understand what he wants from us, so I
think we can be even better. We’re one big team. There isn’t anyone who thinks
of themselves, and we’re going to need that to get to states.”
Stokes has seen another big change.
“The kids are playing with a lot more confidence because they’ve
seen the fruits of their labor,” Stokes said. “Confidence is everything. If you
believe you’re going to do something then nine times out of 10 you’re going to
Junior running back Shug Oyegunle said he has noticed a greater
sense of self-esteem about the program.
“Our teachers and the whole school is showing a lot of pride in
the team, and that’s really something very different,” Oyegunle said. “In the
past people were just like ‘Oh you guys aren’t going to be very good this
year,’ but now it’s completely different.”
Sophomore quarterback Alex McGough added, “I was at Publix the
other day, and someone stopped me and asked if I was the quarterback at Gaither
because I had my jacket on. They said they’ve really liked watching us and to
keep it up. That was like wow, just really cool. To know if we can do things
like last year the community will support us.”
Stokes has tweaked the offense to increase their yards from the
139.4 averaged last year.
“It’s a spread option, but it’s very multiple so we can do
everything out of it,” Stokes said. “I’m an old option guy, it’s what I first
learned and it works no matter what defense you play.”
Part of the shift happened because the Cowboys have new options
at running back, including Blake transfer Josh Bell. The 5-foot-9, 155-pounder
had 257 yards on 43 carries and two scores last year.
“We’ve got Shug, and he’s got blazing speed,” Bell said. “Vu Le is quick, I’m fast and Jamari (Cord) is
pretty fast and really big. We’ve got a lot of speed to throw at teams.”
Oyegunle is also excited about the offense.
“I’ve been telling everyone this offense is going to be
something to watch this year,” Oyegunle said. “You never know with injuries,
but keep an eye on us.”
Oyegunle lined up all over the field, including at quarterback
where he went 15-of-37 passing for 257
yards and two touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder, who ran for 526 and caught
265 yards with 11 total scores, can focus on playing running back now that
McGough is entrenched under center.
“Alex grew a lot,” Oyegunle said. “He takes control of the
huddle and has what it takes to lead the offense.”
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound McGough threw for 1,163 yards and eight
touchdowns in 2011 after transferring from Wesley Chapel in June. He said he
started feeling comfortable at the end of last season and is seeing more
improvement with the offense.
“If we get at least 24 points, then the defense doesn’t have to
worry about stopping the other team on every possession,” McGough said.
That defense allowed just 12.8 points and recorded 82.8 tackles
and 3.7 sacks per game last year. The unit loses a number of starters,
including the two-time reigning All-Laker/All-Lutz News Defensive Player of the
Year in outside linebacker Josh Scarberry.
Scarberry led Hillsborough County with 14 sacks last season.
Williams is moving outside from inside linebacker to help fill that void.
“I played some outside at the beginning of last year,” Williams
said. “I just have to adapt to it because the person I’m taking over for was so
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Williams, who totaled 118 tackles and
two sacks last season, said the defense can be even better in 2012.
“We lost superstars, but everyone always expects our defense to
be good,” Williams said. “Last year was probably our best defense in a while.
The thing is this defense we have this year is far better than what we had last
year. Everyone is running to the ball and wants to be great.”
Gaither travels to Alonso to play Sickles in their spring
jamboree on May 24 at 6:30 p.m.
–Stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches