PENSACOLA — There’s no doubt that Friday’s loss for Gaither in the Class 6A state semifinals was crushing.
There was a variety of negative emotions following the 45-21 loss, in which Escambia scored three defensive touchdowns and grabbed six interceptions.
As much as it stung, third-year coach Kirk Karsen is hopeful that his players will eventually realize the significance of this season for the program. The Cowboys (12-2) completed a banner year, in which they reached the state semifinals for the first time in program history.
Gaither has made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons after a prior five-year drought.
“It’s going to take some time for it to sink in, but this is a special group of kids,” Karsen said of the significance of the season. “We are extremely grateful for everything these kids have done to put this program back on the map. They have a lot to be proud of.
“This senior class is an amazing group of kids that’s given me everything they can for the last three years. I’m really going to miss them.”
Until midway through the third quarter, little went well for Gaither, including a first quarter where Tony Bartalo was picked off four times. But the Cowboys never folded and scored two touchdowns in a five-minute span to cut Escambia’s lead to 27-21 early in the fourth quarter.
First, Bartolo led a sensational drive that was capped off by a 22-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown by Deveon Knighton.
On the ensuing drive, Kobe McCloud made the play of the game for Gaither, ripping the football from Escambia running back Frank Peasant before scampering 60 yards for a touchdown to make it a one-possession game.
Peasant then rushed for two touchdowns within the remaining eight minutes to ultimately put the game out of reach for Gaither.
“Coach (Mike Bennett) has a great team,” Karsen said. “It was their night tonight.”
Bartalo is one of 20 seniors who played his final game in a Gaither uniform. Bartalo’s season is one that won’t soon fade from memory, as he entered the game as the state’s fourth-leading passer with 2,936 yards and finished with an astonishing 45 touchdown passes.
Knighton is also a senior and led the Cowboys with 14 touchdown receptions this year.
Also a senior, Hunter Mintzer grabbed a key interception in the first quarter to halt an Escambia drive while the Gators led 7-0. It was only the fifth interception thrown by Escambia quarterback AV Smith this season.
The Cowboys aim to return 25 juniors to lead the program and keep the prestige high next fall.
Among that group is Jordan Oladokun, who had a standout performance while playing both ways as a defensive back and wide receiver. The Penn State recruit scored Gaither’s first touchdown of the game.
“We’ve got a really solid football team coming back,” Karsen said. “We’ve got probably eight starters coming back on offense and eight on defense. We’ve got some tough holes to fill too. We had some seniors that were complete warriors and gave us everything they had.”
Escambia advances to face Miami Central on Dec. 12 in the Class 6A state championship.
“Gaither’s defense was lights out and very prepared,” Escambia’s Bennett said. “I thought our offensive line took the game over in the fourth quarter. I told them this game was going to be on them. Gaither has a great team and a great quarterback. We made a lot of plays tonight. Our guys were flying around to the football.”