TAMPA — The gravity of the situation was not lost on Ray Ray McCloud III.
Prior to the biggest game in school history, former players gathered around the current crop and gave a speech. They spoke of building the program, the importance of the night’s game. One message particularly resonated.
“They said they wish they could do this all over again,” McCloud said. “They wished it was them playing.”
Sickles did the alums proud.
McCloud rushed for three scores and the defense recorded its second shutout of the year as the Gryphons reached their first-ever region final with a 27-0 win over East Bay.
“It was real cool to hear it from those guys,” McCloud said.
Sickles (11-1) scored 17 points in a little more than 10 minutes to start the game and rolled from there. Coming off a 17-10 win against Plant City in the Class 7A region quarterfinals, McCloud said it was important to get off to a quick start.
“As an offense, we knew no one has stopped us all year,” said the junior, who ran for 145 yards on 18 carries. “Our lowest output of the season was against Plant City, so we wanted to come out fast. So we put up some real quick points and slowed the game down from there.”
Daniel Lezotte capped the Gryphons’ nine-play opening drive with a 31-yard field goal. East Bay (8-4) fumbled on its third play from scrimmage. The ball bounced in and out of a Gryphon’s hands before Deven Santana recovered at the Indians 1. McCloud punched in his first touchdown on the next play for a 10-0 lead.
On Sickles’ next possession, McCloud displayed the elusiveness that earned him the Hillsborough County rushing crown. The junior broke off left tackle, reversed field and zigzagged 73 yards to the East Bay 5. McCloud punched it in on the next play to make it 17-0.
Sickles’ defense took care of the rest, handing the Indians their first shutout of the season.
“We look forward to a goose egg every game,” said safety Carter Mulroe, whose interception set up a Lezotte 26-yard field goal. “We wanted it.”
But as thorough as Friday’s win was, Sickles said there is unfinished business. When asked if the Gryphons are a state title-caliber team, McCloud didn’t blink.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We just have to stay hungry and healthy. We have all the tools.”