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TAMPA — At halftime on the eve of Gaither quarterback Alex McGough’s 16th birthday, the odds could not have been more stacked against him.
The Cowboys got stuck in traffic Friday on their 37-mile trip to Durant and had little time to warm up before their region quarterfinal with the Cougars. McGough was then promptly knocked out of the game on the second series when his right elbow collided with a Durant defender’s helmet. His throwing hand went numb for the next 10 minutes. When he did return with a minute remaining in the first half, he threw five incomplete passes, leaving him with a stat line of 1-of-8 for 5 yards. Gaither trailed 23-7.
Then with some prodding from coach Jason Stokes at halftime, everything changed.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go in,’ and I talked to Coach and he was like, ‘You need to suck it up, get in there and help the team,’ ” McGough said.
Stokes added: “I told him, ‘Listen, you’re not a baby anymore. How are you going to feel on your birthday if you go out there and lose this game?’ ”
McGough took the advice to heart and came out and played the best half of football in his young career. He completed 12 passes for 226 yards — his previous game high had been 180 yards — and two touchdowns, including the winning, 66-yard strike on a swing pass to junior Shug Oyegunle with 1:30 remaining. Gaither put up 31 second-half points to defeat Durant 38-30.
“The second half, we just came out clicking on all cylinders,” McGough said. “Really, anything we did worked.”
It was a career performance for the sophomore quarterback who started last year behind a young offensive line for a 3-7 Wesley Chapel team. Consistently under siege, McGough threw for 418 yards all season — or 209 more than he threw for in 24 minutes against the Cougars. He transferred to Gaither in late June and immediately turned heads with his performance in 7-on-7, as the Cowboys pulled upset after upset at the 51-team USF Sling ’N Shoot to finish second. Oyegunle, who lined up under center last year for Gaither (8-3), moved over for McGough.
“When he first got here, he wasn’t sure what his role was going to be,” Stokes said. “He didn’t really know how to be a leader yet and wasn’t even sure if he wanted to be a leader yet. But he grew into it, he’s matured.”
The challenge now, according to Stokes, is for McGough to keep improving so Gaither can keep playing. Friday’s rematch with Tampa Bay Tech (8-3), which beat Gaither 17-14 three weeks ago to earn the Class 7A, District 7 title, will give McGough the chance to build on last week’s performance.
“The team now is starting to look to him for leadership,” Stokes said, “And that empowers him."