TAMPA — August humidity converged with November ferocity on Friday night in Citrus Park. Forget the “preseason” label etched on the program. Gaither-Sickles had postseason written all over it.
Flubs and flags notwithstanding, this 2012 kickoff darned near was a classic.
“They might as well count the game,” Gryphons coach Brian Turner said.
On a night when the Cowboys and Gryphons first-teamers teamed for 190 penalty yards, the second-teamers combined for nary a grass stain. The Gryphons clinched a 13-7 triumph when starting quarterback Nate Mills found starting wideout Bilal Salat on a simple post for a 25-yard touchdown with 1:35 to play.
“A preseason game? We didn’t take it lightly at all, Salat said. “We wanted to beat them so bad because they’re our rivals honestly. … It got real chippy.”
According to Turner, any notion of turning the final quarter over to backups was dismissed — for various reasons — during a pregame coaches meeting. The result was a dizzying eleventh-hour sequence featuring the prime portions of both rosters.
With the scored tied at 7, junior Matt Williams’ red-zone pick of a Mills pass midway through the fourth gave Gaither a first down at the Gryphons’ 12. A third-down holding call, however, pushed Gaither back, and quarterback Alex McGough’s fourth-down pass at the 4 was batted at the line.
Sickles, which already had blocked two short Gaither field-goal tries, got a 46-yard run up the middle on the ensuing play from sophomore Ray Ray McCloud (10 carries, 122 yards) to the 50. Four plays later, Mills, who shared snaps with sophomore Isaac Holder, found Salat for the winner.
“I’ve got give everything to my O-line and my quarterback,” said Salat, who also caught a 9-yard touchdown from Mills late in the first half. “Without them, I would just be an idiot running down the field.”
McGough, arguably the county’s most promising junior quarterback, finished 11-for-21 for 118 yards.
Harassed all night by Sickles’ front seven, he was sacked twice in a row on Gaither’s final two offensive plays, and was victimized by three shotgun snaps that sailed over his head.
His lone touchdown pass, to senior Shug Oyegunle from 10 yards, capped a 10-play, 58-yard drive sustained in part by two Sickles personal foul penalties.
Sickles, meantime, was buoyed by McCloud, son of a former standout Leto tailback of the same name. McCloud also blocked a Cowboys field goal attempt and had a 31-yard punt return to set up his team’s first touchdown.
“We have some other running backs that are good,” Turner said, “but tonight Ray Ray was on so he got a majority of the carries.”