By Kyle LoJacono
Expectations aren’t something Gaither football has been used to in recent years.
Nothing could be further from the truth in 2012.
The Cowboys reached the regional finals for just the second time in the program’s 27-year history last year, and their 9-4 record included more wins than the previous three seasons combined.
That was Jason Stokes’ first season coaching the squad. He said the biggest difficulty entering Year 2 is getting the players to understand they are 0-0.
“We try to make everything a competition: the weight room, the 7-on-7s, the practice field,” Stokes said. “That keeps the kids on edge so they know they’re not promised anything.”
Inside linebacker Logan Marshall said Stokes makes sure no one forgets.
“We hear it at least 20 times at each practice,” Marshall said.
The new feel around the program is welcome by Marshall, who was a freshman on the 2009 squad that went 1-9.
“It’s really incredible to winning one game three years ago to nine wins last year,” Marshall said. “It’s been a great experience. Unbelievable with coach Stokes coming in, turning things around.”
Stokes said almost everything about preparing this season has been easier.
“As far as the X’s and O’s, we’re light-years from a year ago,” Stokes said. “We had to make last-second changes when we changed offensive coordinators last season and then in the spring. Right now I feel good about the offense, and the defense is set with coach (Brian) DelValle. Because of that we’re just reviewing and polishing instead of installing.”
Gaither scored 27.2 points per game after Stokes took over play calling in Week 2 last season. He will continue selecting formations with the help of co-offensive coordinator Jim Gee, who was at Chamberlain in 2011.
The Cowboys installed a new offense this spring, a spread option.
Driving that shiny new offense is quarterback Alex McGough.
“(The system) brings out the strengths in our offense,” McGough said. “We can do anything out of it. We pass; we get the ball to all our backs. It gives our receivers one-on-one matchups.”
McGough (1,163 yards, eight touchdowns) said he is also more comfortable at Gaither after transferring from Wesley Chapel last summer.
“Last year at this time I was timid and didn’t really talk to anyone,” McGough said. “Now, these are my guys.”
The offense must find a replacement for its top receiving threat from last year in Carlo Perello (792 yards, eight scores). The line also graduated starting left tackle Matt Finnesy.
Returning are running backs Shug Oyegunle (481 yards, five touchdowns), Vu Le (108 yards, one score) and Jamari Cord (161 yards, two touchdowns). The backfield also has a new addition — Blake transfer Josh Bell.
“The running backs, we motivate each other,” said Bell, who had 257 yards and two scores last year. He added, “Shug is the all-around. He’s strong and fast. Vu is more quick, and all of us have that spark. Jamari is really big and powerful. I think we’re going to give defenses trouble.”
The loaded backfield has McGough energized.
“Our run game is incredible,” McGough said. “I’m the quarterback, but I’d be fine handing the ball off to them every play and feel good about it. They can also come out of the backfield, and I can throw them screens. They can do everything.”
The defensive system is the same, but many of the players operating it have changed.
Gone are linemen Nick Sampson (11.5 sacks, 123 tackles) and Mikhail Reece (5.5 sacks, 87 tackles), defensive backs Tyler McCollum (five interceptions, 52 tackles) and Eddie Pastrana (seven interceptions, 50 tackles) and linebacker Josh Rife (35 tackles).
Also graduated is weakside linebacker Josh Scarberry, who led Hillsborough County last year with 14 sacks while adding 118 tackles and five fumble recoveries. He was named the All-Laker/All-Lutz News Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and 2011.
The defense returns Marshall, who led all area athletes with 153 tackles while adding two sacks and three fumble recoveries. Also back are inside linebacker Matt Williams (118 tackles, two sacks), lineman Earnest Suttles (80 tackles, five sacks) and defensive back Amani Oruwariye (five interceptions, 31 tackles)
The defense also gets a boost as Dom Neglio moves from running back to weakside linebacker.
“Scarberry, I’ve got to replace his spot, which is a lot of responsibility because he’s a great player,” Neglio said. “The thing is it’s more of a great system with coach DelValle, and we think we can plug in these guys and keep up our defensive dominance.”
McGough said the defense can replicate the performance of the one that allowed only 12.8 points per game last season.
“Every position that we lost, someone has stepped up,” McGough said. “Our corners are doing really good. During practice trying to throw against Amani, he’s the best corner I’ve seen. Our linebackers fill the hole and our D-line is tough. It’s crazy, but the defense looks just as good as last year.”
All games start at 7:30 p.m. Home games played at 16200 Dale Mabry Highway, Northdale.
Kickoff classic Aug. 24 at Sickles
Sept. 1 at Alonso
Sept. 7 vs. Leto
Sept. 14 at Plant City
Sept. 21 vs. Wiregrass Ranch*
Sept. 28 Bye
Oct. 5 at Steinbrenner*
Oct. 12 vs. East Bay
Oct. 19 at Freedom*
Oct. 26 vs. Chamberlain*
Nov. 2 vs. Tampa Bay Tech*
Nov. 9 at Riverview
*Denotes district contest
2011 Cowboys (9-4)
Alonso L 25-14
Leto W 48-3
Plant City L 21-7
Wiregrass Ranch W 39-0
Steinbrenner W 37-7
East Bay W 17-16
Freedom W 37-0
Chamberlain W 27-20
Tampa Bay Tech L 17-14
Riverview W 31-0
Durant* W 38-30
Tampa Bay Tech* W 17-14
Lakeland* L 42-14