TAMPA — For as long as senior quarterback Alex McGough has been at Gaither, the team had been served a big, catered meal before every football game.
On Sept. 20, just hours before a district matchup with Freedom, the Cowboys’ pregame comfort was ripped right out from under them.
In each of the previous two weeks, Gaither had lost badly — first to Newsome (38-7), then to Plant (41-8). Coach Jason Stokes had enough of it.
So for three weeks, Stokes took away the Cowboys’ privileges. He swiftly moved his team out of its own varsity locker room and into a more cramped one. He took away the catered pregame meals and fed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and apples instead.
Going back to the basics, he thought, would help the Cowboys focus on the things that needed to be fixed.
“It was shocking,” McGough said. “Every year I’ve been here we’ve gotten a meal from Red Elephant, Ale House …somebody has donated something to us. But to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? It was like, wow.”
Stokes admitted he questioned some of his players’ effort during the Cowboys’ 2-3 start.
“I wasn’t questioning Alex,” he quickly clarified.
The third-year coach has had many things to be frustrated about in his team’s current campaign, but his quarterback has never been one of them.
Having lost most of its offensive starters from last season — the Cowboys (4-4, 3-1) returned just one offensive lineman and no wide receivers — Gaither has often struggled offensively. The Cowboys scored nine points or fewer in each of their four losses.
He might not have a whole lot of experienced playmakers around him, but McGough, an FIU commit, has proven he has enough know-how to help the Cowboys in a pinch.
In a 17-0 win against Freedom, McGough remembers a play being called to the left. But when he got to the line, he noticed the Patriots overloaded that side, so McGough quickly switched it to the right. The Cowboys picked up 6 yards.
Those are the kinds of decisions a first-year quarterback might not be able to make. But for McGough, it is second nature.
“It really puts our staff at ease knowing that that’s kind of like a coach on the field,” Stokes said. “He gets us out of bad plays if I make a play call he sees isn’t going to work. He knows how to check out of it. He keeps everyone on an even keel.”
McGough’s experienced leadership has helped salvage Gaither’s season, teammate Jeff Suarez said. Since the Plant loss, the Cowboys have won three district games, including a surprising 14-10 win against Tampa Bay Tech last week to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Hopes that, McGough concedes, he thought might have been dashed weeks ago.
A win against Steinbrenner tonight could earn the Cowboys district runnerup honors. If Tampa Bay Tech beats Sickles, they would be in a three-way tie for the district championship.
The Cowboys are back to eating their regular pregame meals, and they’ve returned to their varsity locker room. But thanks to the punishment they’ve endured, McGough said the Cowboys take more than just confidence into their fight for the postseason.
They also bring with them a hard-learned lesson.
“This team can get off track very quickly,” he said. “If we just keep a mindset of what we have to do and not worry about what my shoes look like, do I have dirt on me …if we can just focus on the little things, we can be successful.”
Photo: Gaither quarterback Alex McGough’s veteran leadership has been invaluable in recent weeks.
Kelly Parsons can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @_kellyparsons.