TAMPA — As Gaither’s matchup with Tampa Bay Tech neared, so, too, did Tropical Storm Nestor, which threatened to dump rain on the Tampa Bay area all Friday evening.
Given the expected conditions, the Cowboy coaches thought a little more about their game plan.
“One of the coaches told me, he said, ‘Man, there’s something nasty in the Gulf. We might want to really focus on our heavy formation to where we can run the ball and it grinds the clock out,’ ” Gaither coach Kirk Karsen said. “But we are who we are. We throw the football, and we were still going to throw the football.”
Rain fell all night, and leaning on senior running back Chance Coleman, the Cowboys (8-0) did employ the run game as the wet football only got heavier. But still, quarterback Tony Bartalo slung it all night, coming away with three touchdowns on the way to a 25-8 victory against the Titans.
Even though it's been Gaither's offense turning heads this season, the Cowboy defense was strong from the start. Tampa Bay Tech had just two first downs in the first half, one of which came after a Gaither penalty.
Meanwhile, Bartalo did what he does best.
After an early rain-induced fumble, the Cowboy offense took advantage of a bad Titan punt, and the short field and a pass interference penalty against Tampa Bay Tech (5-3) helped set up Bartalo’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Duclos in the second quarter.
He'd have another just seconds before halftime, hitting Deveon Knighton with a 17-yard touchdown pass. Gaither led 13-0 at the break.
"Tony is Tony. He's the best quarterback in the state of Florida," Karsen said of Bartalo, who now has 28 touchdown passes on the season, an average of 3.5 per game. "We're lucky to have him, and we're going to score a lot of points having him on our team."
Karsen said he liked his team's chances at winning the game even at halftime, as he knew the weather conditions would only get worse. They did, but the Cowboys didn't take their foot off the gas, starting the third quarter with a clock-eating drive that Bartalo capped with a 6-yard rushing touchdown for his third score of the night.
Tampa Bay Tech responded shortly after, taking advantage of a bad Gaither punt when Titan quarterback David Wright threw a 30-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the drive. A two-point conversion put the Titans within 11, but Tampa Bay Tech wouldn't move the chains the rest of the night.
And with the help of a short field following a turnover on downs, Gaither added another score, this time from Coleman on an 11-yard touchdown run.
Now, the Cowboys are just two wins away from an undefeated regular season and one victory shy of matching the best season record Gaither has had in more than a decade.
And still, there could be a lot of football left for Gaither to play — especially if Bartalo keeps following through.
“I would be lying if I said we didn’t expect it. We totally expected this,” Bartalo said about his team’s undefeated status. “Coming in, through January, we knew we had a really good team. So just for us to live up to our expectations ... it’s a great feeling.”