By Kyle LoJacono
The Gaither football team took its first step toward making consecutive playoff appearances with a 30-7 home win against Class 7A-District 7 rival Wiregrass Ranch Sept. 21.
The Cowboys (3-1, 1-0) won by four scores, but had to fight hard to pull away from the Bulls (0-4, 0-1) who have lost their last 16 games.
“We didn’t underestimate them; we just didn’t execute,” said Gaither coach Jason Stokes. “Too much stuff going on this week with it being homecoming, and early in the game we made too many mental errors. They bit us on offense and defense.”
Senior running back Vu Le said Wiregrass Ranch didn’t play like a team that hasn’t won since Nov. 5, 2010.
“They played hard and played to the whistle,” Le said. “They’re a good competitor this year because they’re trying to win the district too.”
On their first possession, the Bulls drove deep into Cowboys territory thanks to a 52-yard pass from quarterback Shane Bucenell to Ryan Shea, but Gaither’s defense stopped the momentum on the next play when lineman Ernest Suttles forced the first of three Wiregrass Ranch fumbles.
Safety D.J. King scooped up the loose ball to set up a nine-play, 66-yard drive capped off with quarterback Alex McGough finding Marcus Brown for a four-yard touchdown.
“I had to get that momentum back,” King said. “They were driving the ball on us. I just try to make plays, and when I saw that ball on the ground I thought pick it up and run.”
The senior suffered a sprained neck at Wiregrass Ranch last year, which forced him to spend several hours in the hospital.
“I’ve never had to go to the hospital before, so I wanted to get payback a little bit,” King said. “I was thinking about what happened last year today and this whole week because it was scary when it happened.”
The Bulls answered on their next possession with a 13-play drive that ended with Bucenell sneaking into the end zone on fourth-and-goal on the one-yard line.
That made the score 7-7, something running back Shug Oyegunle changed 14 seconds later.
The senior took the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown with 4:54 left in the first half to give the Cowboys the lead for good.
“I saw a big hole from my blockers and took it,” said Oyegunle, who finished with 141 all-purpose yards.
Stokes said Oyegunle’s touchdown helped snatch control of the contest.
“This is such a momentum game,” Stokes said. “Without a doubt that touchdown gave us some life.”
Gaither’s offense started gashing Wiregrass Ranch after halftime with six plays of 12 or more yards. Le scored twice in the final 24 minutes, the first on a 17-yard catch and the second on a 51-yard run with 4:13 remaining for the game’s final points.
“It was a district game, so I knew I had to step up my game,” Le said. “I want to be a leader out there, so once I got the ball I was just thinking score.”
McGough completed 8-of-18 passes for 108 yards, 51 to Brown on four catches.
The Cowboys allowed no turnovers in the contest and recorded 301 yards of total offense.
“I feel really confident,” Oyegunle said of the offense. “We have all the talent on this team to take it far. We’ve worked hard, now we just have to work even harder.”
Gaither’s defense strangled Wiregrass Ranch’s offense in the second half, recoding two of its three sacks, picking off Bucenell once and forcing another two fumbles. Both loose balls were recovered by defensive lineman Thanasi Halkias.
The Cowboys did allow one big play after halftime, a 70-yard pass to Joe Irizarry late in the fourth, but linebacker Devon Wieand intercepted Bucenell on the next play.
Both squads have a bye this week. Gaither will travel to 7A-7 rival Steinbrenner on Oct. 5, while Wiregrass Ranch hosts district opponent Tampa Bay Tech. Both games start at 7:30 p.m.