Jason Stokes is one of the area's younger prep football coaches, but he already has figured out how to put his Gaither High program on the right track: watch Hillsborough County's most successful coaches at work.
That's why Stokes has turned up at Armwood High and Plant High in the past year to pick the brains of Sean Callahan and Robert Weiner. Between them, Callahan and Weiner have won seven state crowns in the past 10 seasons. And Stokes says each coach has traits that have placed his program among the nation's elite.
"Coach Callahan stresses physical intensity in his practices and that carries over to their games," Stokes said. "Coach Weiner's practices are so organized … Their players are like little coaches on the field."
Stokes says his players haven't completely grasped the best qualities of Armwood and Plant, but he believes, "we're getting there." How else can you explain a 2011 season that saw the Cowboys reach the regional finals against six-time state champion Lakeland? Yes, the Dreadnaughts prevailed 42-14; but it was the deepest Gaither had advanced in more than a decade.
Not bad for Stokes' first season at the helm of the Cowboys' program.
To venture deeper in the playoffs, Stokes says, he and his staff have placed an emphasis on strength and smarts by logging time in the weight and meeting rooms.
"We've got a good mix of talent at the right positions, numbers and decent size," Stokes said. "We just need to be physical enough and have the right attitude to be one of those deep playoff teams."
Strength? Stokes says seven of his players can squat 700-plus pounds and six Cowboys can bench press 300 or more pounds. Attitude? Stokes believes most of his squad has "bought into the system" and will be the type of players who will "run through walls" when the game is on the line. Defense is also a key and there, too, Stokes has modeled that unit on Plant, where athletes play within themselves, hold their position in gaps and pursue the opponent en masse.
Key athletes on last season's 9-4 squad return, including quarterback Alex McGough and running back Shug Oyegunle.
Stokes says he also has players who could be major surprises this fall, including linebacker/fullback Jamari Cord, running/slot backs Marcus Brown and Josh Bell, and linebacker Dominic Neglio.
"We're getting there and after one year, I think the kids are buying into the system," Stokes said. "We just have to play like some of those great Armwood and Plant teams and believe in ourselves."