By Andy Warrener
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Gaither football coach Jason Stokes knows success during the 7-on-7 summer season isn’t a guarantee of anything in the fall.
“But it doesn’t hurt either,” Stokes said.
His Cowboys showed the area their 9-4 season and regional finals appearance last year was no fluke, reaching the 7-on-7 Route 9 tournament final on July 15 in Fishhawk. Gaither went 7-2 at the two-day event, 5-1 in pool play, before falling to East Lake 43-6 in the title game.
“I was happy with the way the offensive guys looked working together,” Stokes said. “With 7-on-7 we don’t do the same things we’ll do in the fall, but I saw them with good timing and being where they should be. On defense, coach (Brian) DelValle had them ready to play a bunch of different offenses and looked sharp.”
Gaither started the tournament with a 21-0 victory over Spoto. Quarterback Alex McGough hit almost every receiver in the contest.
The Cowboys’ secondary was also on point, with seniors Dom Neglio, Pat Fankama and Danny Bonham, along with junior Amani Oruwariye, disrupting the opposition’s passing game. DelValle, Gaither’s defensive coordinator, took particular notice in Oruwariye’s improvement.
“He’s a playmaker; he just keeps getting better,” DelValle said. “He won’t back down from anybody, and he can out-jump most anybody.”
The Cowboys defeated Anclote, Plant City, Spoto, Middleton and East Bay on Day 1, losing only to Lakewood. They followed up with wins over Boca Ciega and Lakewood the following afternoon.
Wharton also went 5-1 the first day, but lost to Newsome in its first elimination game.
Senior linebacker Rocky Enos, who is moving inside after playing the outside spot last year, led the Wildcats’ defense. As a physical player, Enos was a little frustrated by not being able to tackle in the 7-on-7 event.
“It would change the game if we had pads on,” Enos said.
Enos said the fast-paced nature of 7-on-7 is allowing him to get used to dropping into coverage from his new position.
“It helps me work on keeping my hips loose getting back into coverage,” Enos said.
Wharton junior quarterback Chase Litton was impressed with his receivers at the event.
“I feel pretty comfortable with them,” Litton said. “They had a couple of drops, but they came out and performed today.”
Whenever Wharton needed a big play, senior defensive back/wide receiver Vernon Hargreaves answered the bell.
Hargreaves, a top-five national recruit in every major ranking service, lines up wherever needed.
“I don’t play to impress people,” Hargreaves said. “I have my game I like to play, and I just like to go out there and have fun.”
The Wildcats beat Strawberry Crest, Newsome, Cambridge Christian, Tampa Catholic and the tournament champion East Lake 23-22. The Wildcats only loss the first day was to Tampa Bay Tech.
Freedom also participated in the tournament, losing all six games on the first day, but beat Bloomingdale on Day 2 before being eliminated by Alonso.
First-year Patriots coach Todd Donohoe said they wanted all of their quarterbacks to get reps at the event instead of worrying about wins. Those up for the spot include Wharton transfer DJ Grant, GaDerrius Kelley and Taylor King, who Donohoe said has the inside track.
Receiver Alonte Fleshman made several key touchdown grabs, including the game-winning score against Bloomingdale. Defensive back Nate Godwin looked strong versus some of the best receivers in the area.
“It gives us good experience playing coverage against guys like that,” said Godwin, a senior.
—Sports Editor Kyle LoJacono contributed to this report