TAMPA — If there was no scoreboard at Gaither High and one had to decide the winner of Friday’s game against division foe Largo strictly by each team’s post-game reactions, it would have been impossible.
As it turned out, the visiting Packers were understandably sullen as they dropped an emotional 28-24 decision, but the Cowboys weren’t overjoyed despite taking their third victory in four tries.
“We start fast and play well in the first half, but for some reason — I don’t know what it is — but we can’t get it working in the second half,” Gaither coach Kirk Karsen said. “This is four games in a row where we haven’t scored a point in the second half.”
Not only were the Cowboys blanked in the final 24 minutes, they didn’t even register a first down, lost 32 yards of offense and allowed a third-quarter safety.
Aggressive defense from senior Deondre Randall (eight tackles, three for lost yardage to go with an electrifying second-quarter 94-yard kickoff return touchdown) and sophomore Adarius Hayes (three tackles for loss) helped bottle up Gaither and allowed Largo (1-2) to get back in the hunt.
A second quarter graced with superb field position was the Cowboys’ saving grace.
Thanks to an athletic interception from senior Jacoreyus Demps and a pair of fine punt returns from Tre Wilson, Gaither started three drives deep in plus territory. Demps made them all pay off with scoring runs of 4, 5 and 3 yards.
“He’s 5-foot-7, 155 pounds, and he just leaves his heart and soul on the field every single time,” Karsen said.
The night’s key score came in the waning minutes of the first half when Cowboys quarterback Brooks Bentley hit Wilson on a crossing pattern, turning a third and 13 into a 67-yard touchdown and a 28-14 lead with 30 seconds left.
Largo crawled within four points with 45 seconds left in the game when junior Jazion Cross (83 rushing yards, touchdown) hit senior Tre’son Everett for a 20-yard touchdown, but the efforts of freshman Antonio Henley all but ran out the clock on the Packers’ comeback attempt.
In Largo’s penultimate drive, Henley had a sack, forced two fumbles and recovered one. He finished with three sacks and another tackle for loss.
“I was just making plays and doing what I do,” Henley said. “When I got the first (fumble), I just said, ‘Keep going, keep going’ and did it again.”
“(Antonio’s) going to be one of the best in the state in three years,” Karsen said. “We knew Zero (his number from youth ball turned into a nickname) was special from the first day of practice.”
Now Karsen is looking for that type of closing effort from the rest of his squad.
“I’ve got a plan for that on Monday. A lot of log rolling (drills), a lot of bear crawls ...,” he said. “We’ll get that fixed without a doubt.”