LAKELAND — The Gaither Cowboys attempted to come into Friday’s Class 7A region final like a throng of thoroughbreds wearing blinders. So they turned their backs to the golf cart, the cannon and pregame stream of Lakeland highlights on the Jumbotron.
It didn’t matter. On this night, it was great to be a Dreadnaught.
Lakeland (13-0) will play in the state semifinals for the fourth consecutive year thanks to an emphatic 42-14 drubbing of Gaither at Bryant Stadium. The Dreadnaughts dominated the Cowboys (9-4) on both the offensive and defensive lines, forcing five sacks en route to knocking Gaither quarterback Alex McGough out in the third quarter with a head injury.
“We’re not ready for the big show yet,” Cowboys coach Jason Stokes said. “That kind of sums it up.”
In addition to fighting the losing battle in the trenches, Gaither also had to grapple with its own fumbles. In total, the Cowboys fumbled the ball nine times, with six coming on mishandled exchanges between the quarterback and center Alex Rodriguez. This week, Rodriguez missed three days of practice with an injury.
“I think just being on this stage, maybe it has something to do with the turf field, but anyway, I don’t make excuses,” Stokes said.
Without a 65-yard pass from backup quarterback Shug Oyegunle to Jamari Cord that occurred late in the fourth quarter with Lakeland up by 35, Gaither managed 46 yards of total offense. The Cowboys also struggled to pin the Dreadnaughts deep in their own territory in the first quarter, with Lakeland starting its drives from the Gaither 47-, 3- and its own 49-yard line, respectively. At the end of the first quarter, the Dreadnaughts were up 14-0.
The Cowboys did show a sign of life early in the second quarter when linebacker Logan Marshall recovered a Lakeland fumble in the end zone for a touchdown to make it 14-7. Lakeland added one more score before halftime, and Ricquan Southward, an Ohio State commit, gained 64 yards on his first three touches of the third quarter to put the Dreadnaughts ahead 28-7. Oyegunle added a late 4-yard touchdown run to halt the running clock and make the score 42-14.
While it wasn’t a happy ending, it was the final chapter in the county’s most unlikely playoff run.
“Nobody ever thought that we would make it to the regional finals at all,” Stokes said. “I’m proud of these boys, I’m proud of my staff. I’m happy to be a Cowboy, I’m not going to hang my head at all.”