TAMPA — Coach Brian Turner admits he was freaking out.
In the days leading up to Sickles' district matchup with Freedom last week, Turner's star running back, Clemson commit Ray Ray McCloud III, was sick. McCloud had never missed a game in four years. Turner spent the whole school day Oct. 3 worrying McCloud might miss his first. Just hours before kickoff, Turner's anxiety was no longer about the football game.
While McCloud was dressing out and getting ready for the game, he began vomiting. He couldn't walk straight. Right after kickoff, Turner sent McCloud, still in his jersey, to St. Joseph's hospital to get IV fluids.
With or without McCloud, though, the game was still on.
"We lean on Ray so much, and that's my fault," Turner said. "(The other guys have) been begging me, 'Coach, I can do it too.' "
And in a 23-9 win against the Patriots, McCloud's teammates proved just that.
Steven Quiles rushed for 59 yards on seven carries. Wide receiver Trey Fullwood — who now has 11 receptions, six for touchdowns — had five catches for 118 yards and two scores.
"Usually we depend on Ray to come through for us to win the game, lead us," Fullwood said. "It was a new feeling stepping up for my team …I did it for Ray."
Turner said the offense's performance in McCloud's absence gave the coaches added confidence in their abilities. That confidence might make them rest a little easier come tonight, when the Gryphons host Plant.
The Panthers have been strong on defense this season, especially against the run. Plant has held three of its six opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. McCloud, who is averaging 163 yards per game, said he hopes to get much more than that all by himself.
Last year Plant beat Sickles 24-20 on a last-minute touchdown drive. Still, McCloud had a pair of touchdowns, on 11- and 15-yard runs, and 159 rushing yards. At the half, he had just one fewer yard than the entire Plant offense.
Despite McCloud's proven success against the Panther defense, Turner knows that the senior running back will likely be the defense's target come tonight. Because of that, he's even more thankful that his other players got a chance to show their stuff last week.
"Teams load up to stop Ray Ray. Now they have the confidence to say, 'Hey, if that's not working, there's something else we can do,' " Turner said. "We still have a chance to win.' "
While sitting in the hospital last week, McCloud was receiving updates from the game via text message. But, McCloud said, he didn't need the confirmation that his teammates were carrying on just fine without him.
He already knew they would.
"People always say Ray Ray, Sickles, all that, but honestly, we have a lot of players who could go to any school in the county and ball," said McCloud, whose 4,419 career rushing yards are just 1,157 short of the Hillsborough County record. "I knew they could do it. I think our coaches knew, too, but they had to show it so people could believe it."
Now, it's not just the spectators from last week's game that know McCloud's teammates are capable. The Gryphons also made believers out of themselves.