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While Brandon and Tampa Bay Tech, and Jefferson and Spoto, and Armwood and Hillsborough tangle tonight for playoff position in the marquee showdowns, an unlikely Gaither team will be trying to slice off its own piece of the postseason pie.
That pie has been baking for two weeks now, since the Cowboys, in one of the season’s more shocking results, hung with Plant before losing 24-16, then last week beat Plant City 20-7.
“The last four weeks, really, we’ve been playing as well as we can possibly play,” coach Mark Kantor said. “It feels like we’ve turned the corner a little bit.”
Or at the least, the Cowboys are sticking a toe into the light after some dark times. After making the playoffs in 2008 despite a 4-6 record, the Cowboys endured a rash of transfers, from Cary White (one of the county’s best running backs) to Anthony Chickillo (one of the country’s top recruits at defensive line) to Dylan Fisher and Dominic Marino (starting quarterbacks at Alonso and Freedom, respectively). That contributed to a lot of young players getting bigger roles in last year’s 1-9 campaign, which is paying off this season.
The Cowboys (3-4) remain young but experienced, and led by a sturdy and aggressive defense, especially the linebacking corps led by junior Josh Scarberry (seven sacks) and Levon Brookins.
Defensive lineman Chadd Hannah recently picked up a scholarship offer from Rutgers, and Kantor thinks junior free safety Max Paulter and junior cornerback Tyler McCollum (four interceptions each) are college prospects.
“They have been playing with relentless passion the past few weeks and getting a lot of turnovers for us,” Kantor said.
The offense hasn’t been as good, but sophomore quarterback Shug Oyegunle is a promising work in progress.
But defense could get the Cowboys into the playoffs. They have to beat Chamberlain tonight, endure a game against Armwood, then wrap up the regular season with a potential do-or-die district contest against Alonso.
Each game has looked more and more winnable.
“I think they are believing we can play with these people. It’s really given them an uplifting feeling going into these last four weeks,” Kantor said. “We know the loser (tonight) is out of the playoffs. The Plant game, knowing that they have been state champions three times, the way we played with them, it has really put us into contention. That’s when we started thinking, you know, maybe. …
“It’s a good feeling. We haven’t felt that feeling in a long time."