TAMPA — It’s been a year of firsts for the Sickles High football team.
The Gryphons won their first district title; then hosted, and won, their first playoff game. Coach Brian Turner even made that the team slogan at the start of the year. “A Team of Firsts.”
The Sickles football team is known for its one-two backfield punch of Ray Ray McCloud and Isaac Holder, but don’t let the team’s defense know that. The defense has been key to the team’s success and its 10-1 record heading into last Friday’s second round playoff game against East Lake.
It was the Sickles defense that stepped up in its first ever playoff win on Nov. 15 when the Gryphons beat Plant City, 17-10. While McCloud and Holder were contained, the defense kept Plant City in check.
Sophomore Carter Mulroe had a key sack near the Sickles goal line late in the game to stifle a Plant City drive, and also blocked a punt that led to a Sickles score. Linebacker Josh Black and defensive lineman Deven Santana dominated the line and took the headlines away from Sickles’ high-power offense.
The defense is happy that the Tampa Bay area has started taking notice.
The Gryphons lost in the first round of districts last year on the road and spent the off-season reflecting on the loss. This year, they vowed, would be different.
“We are a different team this year,” Harris said. “We play in a tough district and we’re a tough team. The defense doesn’t get noticed, but we do our job.”
It’s a tight-knit defense. Mulroe is a sophomore but fits in with the seniors. Black and Santana have been playing youth football for the Carrollwood Hurricanes since first grade.
“We got to be like brothers,” Santana said. “We know what each other is going to do on every play and it showed this year.”
The Gryphons lost to Plant early in the season and never looked back. A defense that was tired of early playoff exits decided this was going to be their season.
“Last year, this team learned a lot,” Santana added. “We know what it’s like to make districts. We know how to win now. The key is the third quarter. We stop them there and let the offense take over.”
The strategy has worked. While Holder and McCloud put the points on the board, Black said the defense makes sure the offense knows what it has to do.
“We tell them to just help us win,” Black said. “Get us a touchdown and we’ll make the stops.”
The Sickles defense might not get the headlines, but they are certainly helping to get the wins.