TAMPA — Sickles entered this week's Class 5A, District 9 tournament at King High with no returning starter from last year's district title team, no momentum and essentially no depth.
Using only 11 players for the entire 80 minutes on a 56-degree Friday night, the Gryphons (17-6-3) exploded for three second-half goals to rally for a 3-1 triumph against top-seeded Gaither in a rematch of last year's district final.
Sickles, outscored 13-3 in a trio of ugly defeats at last week's Wharton Invitational, hosts Naples Gulf Coast in Thursday's region quarterfinals.
"There's a lot to be said about this team, being down to Gaither at the half and coming back and scoring," said Gryphons coach Tony Calvo, who lost top scorer Carlos Rodriguez for the rest of the season following his red-card ejection at the Wharton Invitational.
"They're a young group of guys but they play with heart. …I told them, 'Guys, I don't plan on making any subs tonight. We're playing 11 guys. I may sub some towards the end, but you're going to really have to take it to them.' "
They did — in the second half.
Gaither scored the first half's lone goal on Jordan See's shot just inside the penalty box off a Cesar Ticora throw-in in the 36th minute.
But the Gryphons tied things three minutes into the second on senior Dillon Kane's header directly in front of the net off a long throw-in by Gryphons junior varsity quarterback Michael Mulroe.
Four minutes later, junior Gavin O'Malley scored off a long through ball for the go-ahead goal.
With roughly 10 minutes to play, O'Malley provided the insurance.
After the Gryphons cleared the ball from their own box, Mulroe sent another through pass to O'Malley, who broke away for a goal from 18 yards. Ten minutes before, Sickles keeper Alex Dichiara (six saves) had blocked a thunderous Zachary Wheeler shot from 7 yards.
"The last two goals were off offensive plays for us," said Gaither coach Eric Sims, whose team (15-4-3) travels to Punta Gorda Charlotte on Thursday. "Those are things that we can fix and I think those are mistakes that we won't make again."