TAMPA — Under the lights at Gaither’s stadium, first-year coach Jason Stokes had his team lined up along the sideline. It was 7:30, and Stokes had planned for practice to end an hour earlier, but his squad had sprints to run.
Standing across the field, Stokes blew his whistle. Before taking off, everyone said one word in unison.
It’s a relatively new concept at Gaither, but not for Jason Stokes. He came to Tampa in 2003 “cold turkey,” to use his words, at the urging of his uncle, Chip Bennett (father of former Alonso quarterback C.J. Bennett) after a three-year stint at a Goldman Sachs’ over-the-counter stocks trading desk. As a first-year coach in 2008, he guided Bloomingdale to a 6-4 record and the only playoff berth in the school’s 23-year history. That team traveled to Lakeland’s infamous Bryant Stadium, complete with actively firing cannons and a jumbotron, and lost 48-6.
The transformation at Gaither has been strikingly similar. Stokes, who guided Middleton to two 5-5 seasons in between, inherited a team in January with four wins the past two years and a seven-game district losing streak. Now, Gaither (9-3) is one of eight teams alive in Class 7A and has to travel to — you guessed it — Lakeland (12-0) on Friday for a region final.
Stokes’ blueprint is deceptively simple. Instill discipline and expectations. Follow through on your word. Build trust. Finally, inspire the kids to lead themselves.
“That comes from being a father, a teacher, a coach,” Stokes, 36, said. “If the kids trust you, they’ll run through a wall for you.”
He didn’t waste time installing his system.
“That’s the biggest thing, he’s real about it,” said senior captain and defensive end Mikhail Reece. “I knew that from the first meeting when everyone wasn’t paying attention and he went, ‘Stop moving,’ with a real stern face. And everyone knew he meant business.”
“He expects a lot out of you,” added another senior captain, Nick Sampson. “I could just be walking through the halls, and if he’s heard something bad from a teacher, he’s going to be like, ‘Come on, captain.’
“He’s like a father, and he’s like a big brother. He expects greatness out of you, and you just want to bring it to him.”
As a linebacker at Lehigh University in the late 1990s, Stokes was that player who led his teammates.
“He was a very emotional player,” said Kevin Higgins, who coached Stokes at Lehigh and currently is the head coach at The Citadel in South Carolina. “You could tell then that he had excellent leadership skills. He had the ability to rally those around him and was always right in the middle of it.”
Stokes’ intensity and passion haven’t waned with age. Throughout the past three weeks of practice, he has yelled at the Cowboys to “stay hungry,” “fear losing” and reminded seniors they are all on “week-to-week contracts.” Conditioning at the end of practice has been equally intense, with push-ups, jackknife crunches and flutter kicks mixed with sprints. Immediately following, the offensive and special teams units have to execute plays perfectly.
Stokes’ commitment to his players extends beyond football. On Thanksgiving, he and his staff borrowed a tradition from Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas and organized a potluck breakfast for players and their families before the Cowboys’ walkthrough.
“Really building that family feeling and atmosphere is definitely important to him,” said Gaither principal Marie Whelan, who was an assistant principal at Middleton when Stokes was hired there in 2009. “He makes the student part of student-athlete a priority, and I knew the Xs and Os would fall into place.”
To prepare for Friday’s match against the Dreadnaughts, Stokes went to visit the coach who has ended Lakeland’s season the past two years: Plant’s Robert Weiner. If Stokes has his way, Gaither will look like the Panthers on Friday — and beyond.
“I say all the time, ‘This is Plant before Plant became Plant,’ ” he said of Gaither. “We really have all the ingredients. We have the talent pool, the coaching, the administration, the parents, the support, the community. The sky is the limit here.”