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Gaither preparing to Cowboy up at Lakeland

Posted Nov 28, 2011 by Katherine Smith

Updated Nov 28, 2011 at 09:42 PM

Sure they’ve got the big Jumbotron. And that helmet golf cart is kind of cool. And the cannon, oh, the cannon is loud.

But Lakeland of late isn’t exactly the Lakeland of the mid-2000’s when they won three of their six state championships and when the Dreadnaughts were crowned the mythical national champs twice.

Plant dispelled the Lakeland myth with a 20-0 victory at Bryant Stadium en route to the Class 5A state championship in 2009. And last year, the Panthers running-clocked the Dreadnaughts at Dad’s Stadium with a 48-6 drubbing in the state semifinals.

Now its Gaither’s shot to be the Hillsborough County team that ends Lakeland’s season for the third-straight year. The Cowboys have made an improbable run to the Class 7A-Region 2 finals with back-to-back fourth-quarter comeback victories against Durant and Tampa Bay Tech.

“We’re going into this saying this is the 2011 Dreadnaughts versus the 2011 Cowboys,’’ Gaither head coach Jason Stokes said. “All the stuff they have is just intimidation and doesn’t mean anything. Those kids are football players just like we are. Because we don’t see them every year and we’re not around them, we don’t see that Lakeland aura that surrounds the program.

“Our kids are flying high with confidence and they believe in each other and anything can happen.’’

Gaither’s in the postseason for the first time in three years and in the regional finals, along with nationally-ranked teams St. Thomas Aquinas, Dwyer and Manatee, for the first time since 2000. In his first year as the Cowboys head coach, Stokes is out to prove his team belongs.

“We’re with some serious teams,’’ Stokes said. “I’m just glad the really heavy hitters are on the other side of the bracket. But it does feel good to understand that in the elite 8 that we are a part of, there is some serious competition.’’

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