ST. PETERSBURG — When Donnie Abraham arrived to take over a Gibbs football team that was without a permanent head coach throughout the offseason, he wanted to choose a mantra that was practical and set goals that were attainable.
He decided "small steps'' was a sensible way to measure the progress of a struggling program, as well as that of a first-year head coach.
When the Gladiators started 0-3, Abraham made sure his players knew they had played one of the county's toughest early-season schedules. When they started winning, including a victory over Class 5A, District 9 favorite St. Petersburg, a moment of triumph was observed. When they defeated Pinellas Park, Abraham and his players danced off the field in celebration, ensured of the first district title in school history.
By the end of the regular season Gibbs had become one of the county's best stories, and it was clear that coach and team had outgrown the mantra. Now, with the Gladiators hosting Bradenton Manatee (9-1) — ranked No. 6 in the state — in Friday night's 5A region quarterfinals, Abraham is trying to manage a different set of expectations.
"We're hosting a playoff game for what I believe is the first time ever," Abraham said. "It's a big deal to the community and the school. Everybody is excited around here.
"It's special to see what we've been able to do in such a short period of time."
The Gladiators (6-4) had been in flux since March, when former coach Yusuf Shakir left to take over the program at Tallahassee Lincoln. The Gibbs administrators who were there at the time decided not to hire a full-time coach, opting to use youth league coaches to get through the spring.
It wasn't until July when Abraham, a former standout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was hired to pull the Gladiators out of the abyss.
"All we needed was a coach, a shepherd, to lead us," Gibbs quarterback Josh Rembert said. "We didn't know what to expect when Coach got here. But he's given us a lot of direction and discipline.
"But he hasn't done it yelling. He's laid-back, but still gets his point across."
The Gladiators, under Abraham's guidance, won six straight before having that streak snapped last week. Still, they earned the right to play at home for at least one round in the playoffs, a game many envision will have the bleachers vibrating, the band blaring and the cheerleaders shrieking.
"Everyone, including the alumni, are pumped," Rembert said. "It feels good to host that caliber of a team in the playoffs."