TAMPA — Go back. . . way, way back.
A total of 14,910 hours had expired since Gaither last scored on Chamberlain.
That streak finally ended Friday, and the Cowboys needed every point in a 33-28 victory. Gaither, ranked fifth in Class 6A, remained undefeated in six games. Chamberlain (2-4) lost its third in a row.
Gaither quarterback Tony Bartalo and Jayden Mendez teamed for three touchdown passes (34, 30 and 23 yards).
But it was the Cowboys’ defense that sealed the victory. Sophomore linebacker Kobe McCloud’s first career interception of a Bruce Jackson fourth-down pass intended for Joseph Hodge in the right flat at the Gaither 40 with 1:54 left halted Chamberlain’s final drive.
“(Hodge) is their best target on the team,” McCloud said. “I knew they were going to try to attack me, and I was able to make the play.”
Jackson, who accounted for a pair of touchdowns, had completed 12 consecutive passes before the Gaither defense rose up. On the play preceding McCloud’s pick, Zachary Helman stopped Jackson’s streak by pressuring the Chiefs quarterback on third down to force an incompletion.
Gaither never trailed after halftime, but couldn’t shake Chamberlain, which got a pair of touchdowns from Antony Guzman. The Cowboys’ 33-21 lead early in the fourth quarter was reduced to five when Jackson scored on a 1-yard run with 8:42 left.
Gaither had not scored against Chamberlain since a 35-6 win in 2014. The Cowboys lost consecutive shutouts to the Chiefs (21-0 and 17-0) the past two seasons after not playing in 2015-16.
Chamberlain took advantage of three lost fumbles by Bartalo in the first half.
The Cowboys were sharp early, taking their first series 65 yards on six plays. Chance Coleman culminated the drive with a 3-yard run and two-point PAT carry.
Bartalo then fumbled the ball on three of the Cowboys’ following four possessions.
The first two recoveries by Chamberlain’s James Ash and Nick Poole set up a pair of short TD drives of 25 and 35 yards, respectively, giving the Chiefs a 15-8 lead with 9:51 left before halftime.
A Jackson to Kaleb Long pass covering 19 yards produced the first TD, and Hodge’s two-point conversion run tied the score at 8.
Chamberlain took its only lead at 15-8 as Guzman bulled into the end zone from 2 yards out and Marcus Ashwood added the PAT.
Gaither bounced back on the next series, driving 45 yards on six plays to regain the lead for good on a 34-yard pass from Bartalo to Jayden Mendez, who finished with five receptions totaling 152 yards. Coleman ran in another two-point try for a 16-15 lead.
A Hunter Mintzer interception of a Jackson pass on Chamberlain’s next series set up Gaither at the Chiefs 43. Mendez hauled in a 40-yard strike from Deveon Knighton to give the Cowboys the ball at the Chamberlain 3. But moments later, Gaither turned the ball over when a center snap went over the head of Bartalo, who gained possession briefly before losing it to the Chiefs’ Antonio Jamison.
Gaither padded its lead to 19-15 with 21 seconds left in the second quarter on a Mintzer 34-yard field goal set up by a blocked Chamberlain punt.
Chamberlain’s Vontreyvious Simmons was ejected in the game’s final minute for unsportsmanlike conduct.