CARROLLWOOD — In probably the biggest indication of Gaither's football turnaround this season, the whispers of "same old Gaither" have not been heard since late September.
With coach Jason Stokes in his first year at the school, Gaither opened the season with losses in two of its first three games. Cowboys fans couldn't be blamed if they believed they were reliving the 8-23 stretch Gaither had trudged through in the previous three seasons.
But the Cowboys put together a five-game winning streak, finished the season strong and earned their first playoff berth since 2008 (when the team actually went 4-6 but won key district games).
Now, playing in a region final for the first time since 2000, the Cowboys are riding the wave of two playoff road wins thanks to a dynamic offense.
Carlo Perello's Xbox-type 75-yard touchdown reception — he caught a 15-yard slant, broke two tackles and hurdled a defender before running 60 more yards past two more defenders — sealed Gaither's win against Tampa Bay Tech last week and typified their big-play capabilities.
"I was just trying to make a play," said Perello, who has 300 yards receiving and three touchdowns in the playoffs. "We needed something. Everybody was really excited and we just weren't ready for the season to end.
"We still feel that way. We have done a lot this year but we still want more."
While Gaither's road show continues at powerhouse Lakeland, Plant continues its methodical journey through the Class 8A playoffs. The Panthers play at East Lake, which is making its first appearance in the regional round of the playoffs. Also, Jesuit is in Dade City to square off against undefeated Pasco in the Class 5A region playoffs.
And unbeaten and unchallenged Berkeley Prep is one game away from the Class 3A state championship contest. The Buccaneers (12-0) will be in Delray Beach tonight to face a tough American Heritage team in a state semifinal meeting.
All kickoffs are scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
CLASS 8A, REGION 2 FINAL
Plant (11-1) at East Lake (9-3)
LAST WEEK: Plant defeated Orlando Dr. Phillips 49-13; East Lake defeated Palm Harbor University 33-26.
THE SKINNY: Plant's playoff march travels to Tarpon Springs to face an East Lake team making its deepest postseason trip in school history. The Eagles are led by RB Tyler Lane, who galloped for 226 yards and four touchdowns in East Lake's thrilling 33-26 win against PHU. The effort was Lane's seventh straight 100-plus yard game. The good news for the Eagles is that they reached the region finals. The not-so good news is that Plant coach Robert Weiner has only lost once in five region final appearances, the last time coming in 2007. Those numbers may improve with the play of Plant QB James Few, who has tossed 10 touchdown passes in the Panther's two 2011 playoff wins.
CLASS 7A, REGION 2 FINAL
Gaither (9-3) at Lakeland (12-0)
LAST WEEK: Gaither defeated Tampa Bay tech 17-14; Lakeland defeated Kissimmee Osceola 20-7.
THE SKINNY: Gaither's wild 17-14 playoff victory against Tampa Bay Tech made amends for its loss to the Titans by the same score during the regular season. Gaither QB Alex McGough likely will be looking for more big plays from WR Carlo Perello, who led the Cowboys with 26 receptions during the regular season. Still, Gaither coach Jason Stokes will need more rushing (just 14 yards last week) and less miscues (two lost fumbles and an interception). Lakeland, meanwhile, is in the midst of a typical run for the powerhouse program that owns six state championships, but none since 2006. The Dreadnaughts have a dynamic QB-WR tandem in Raheem Dumas (1 TD rushing, 1 passing last week) and Ricquan Southward (who switched his college commitment from Miami to Ohio State this week). The last time Gaither visited Lakeland's Bryant Stadium for a playoff game? A 37-0 Lakeland romp in the second round of the 2006 playoffs.
CLASS 6A, REGION 2 FINAL
Gainesville (10-2) at Armwood (12-0)
LAST WEEK: Gainesville beat Sunlake 21-14 and the Hawks defeated Hillsborough 23-0.
THE SKINNY: The Hurricanes defense came up big last week, led by defensive back Cordero Dixon's two big plays. Dixon returned a fumble 49 yards for a score and took an interception back 51 yards for another TD. Gainesville's offense struggled against Sunlake, but showed in the region quarterfinal it was capable of big plays. Trailing 14-13 on their own 9-yard line with 90 seconds to play against Hernando, quarterback Mark Cato led the Hurricanes on a furious drive. He capped it off on a 33-yard TD pass to Chris Bivins with 40 seconds to play. Gainesville is ranked No. 10 in 6A.
CLASS 5A, REGION 2 FINAL
Jesuit (11-1) at Pasco (12-0)
LAST WEEK: The Tigers defeated Robinson 35-20 and Pasco beat north Marion 31-28.
THE SKINNY: Pasco comes in undefeated while the Tigers haven't lost since week 1 against Plant. The Pirates will throw a balanced offense at Jesuit and are led on the ground by tailback David Emmanuel, who has rushed for 1,188 yards and 18 scores on the season. Quarterback Jacob Guy has completed 67 percent of his passes and has an impressive 35 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Trey Dudley-Giles and Janarion Grant both have more than 700 yards receiving. The Pirates erased an early-14 point deficit against North Marion and got a 21-yard Brandon Ray field goal as time expired to advance to tonight's game.
CLASS 3A, STATE SEMIFINALS
Berkeley Prep (12-0) at Delray Beach American Heritage (10-1)
LAST WEEK: Berkeley Prep defeated Fort Meade 21-0; American Heritage defeated Fort Lauderdale University 31-20.
THE SKINNY: Berkeley Prep has been untouchable this season, blasting opponents by an average of almost 30 points per game. Now that Nelson Agholor (211 yards rushing, two touchdowns) and the Bucs have vanquished an 0-3 recent record against Fort Mead with last week's 21-0 victory, they may finally have a challenge. In its first state semifinal game, the Buccaneers are facing an American Heritage squad that was the state runners up in 1A last season. And just like Berkeley, the Stallions can score (38 points per game) and play defense (five shutouts this season). American Heritage has a standout RB in Greg Bryant, who ran for 175 yards and two scores and returned an interception for a score in their big win against nationally-ranked University. Berkeley will rely on standout LB Schyler Miles and the defense to keep this one close. The winner advances to the Class 3A state championship game on Dec. 10.