By Kyle LoJacono
The Gaither football team took another step toward consecutive playoff appearances by winning 16-7 at Class 7A-District 7 rival Freedom Oct. 18.
The win keeps the Cowboys (6-1, 3-0) perfect in district play, but the matchup with the Patriots (2-6, 1-2) was a bit closer than Gaither wanted.
“They were a very physical team,” said senior running back Vu Le. “They came to play, but we came out on top.”
The Cowboys were essentially playing their third game in 11 days after bad weather moved the majority of the contest at Steinbrenner to Oct. 8, followed by matchups against East Bay Oct. 12 and Freedom Oct. 18, but second-year Gaither coach Jason Stokes wouldn’t use that as a reason.
“I thought we were fresh; I thought we were ready,” Stokes said. “Our defense played lights out. They played awesome again, gave up just seven points to a very athletic team. We’re just not playing well right now as a whole. Us coaches just have to figure out what buttons to push with these kids to get them to perform.”
The Cowboys defense again rose to the challenge, forcing three turnovers and recording four sacks.
Gaither’s first points, and the only ones of the first half, came when a snap went over Patriots junior quarterback Taylor King’s head while in the shotgun formation on the home team’s second possession. Senior linebacker Jamari Cord fell on the loose ball in the end zone to go ahead 6-0.
The Cowboys defense set up their second score when junior corner back Amani Oruwariye picked off his first of two passes in the contest with 7:37 left in the third quarter. Le caught a screen pass two plays later and scampered 38 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead to 13-0.
“I knew this game was going to be tough,” said Le, who finished with 72 yards of total offense. “I tried to just make a play for my team.”
The Patriots responded on their next possession with a six-play, 80-yard drive capped with King hitting junior Tyruence Creary for a 14-yard touchdown.
Freedom threatened again in the fourth quarter, but Oruwariye recorded his second interception with 5:21 remaining in the game to stop the drive deep in Gaither territory.
“On both plays I was man up with the guy,” Oruwariye said. “When I saw the ball in the air I just had to go up and take it. … Every time I see the ball in the air I know it’s mine.”
Senior defensive lineman Ernest Suttles, a University of Iowa commit, had three sacks in the contest, including one with 1:31 left in the contest to essentially seal the win.
“I just thought I have to do this for my team, man,” said Suttles, who finished with 10 tackles, four for a loss, and forced a fumble. “It’s all about the team. Nothing is for me personally. It’s for that Gaither pride. We still got a lot to do this year, and we have pride as a brotherhood. We had to finish this game strong.”
The Patriots were able to move the ball after halftime, racking up 123 of their 178 yards of total offense, but the Cowboys defense had a knack for making the critical play when needed.
Gaither junior quarterback Alex McGough continued his efficient play, completing 14 of 22 passes for 199 yards. His favorite target was senior Marcus Brown, who caught eight passes for 100 yards. The offense did not commit any turnovers.
Next up for the Cowboys is a home game against 7A-7 rival Chamberlain Oct. 26 at 7:30 p.m., while Freedom travels to district opponent Tampa Bay Tech. A Gaither win clinches a playoff berth for the squad.
“Our first goal is to get in the playoffs; our second goal is to win the district championship,” Stokes said. “They’ll know how big this next game is because they’ll hear it all week.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker