You can pardon Tohopekaliga High at least a little bit — unless you're on the coaching staff — for going 2-8 on the football field last season; it was its first year and many of the players were still, at heart, Panthers or Bulldogs or products of wherever they came from.
After Thursday, this collection of players is closer to being, if not already, Tigers.
At Gateway High, Tohopekaliga and Gateway concluded their spring sessions a week later than the rest of the county with their spring game, and it was the program celebrating its first spring that won, defeating the hosts playoff team from three of the prior four seasons, 26-8.
Lightning-quick quarterback Blake McCullough, a rising senior who was briefly the Tigers' signal caller last year before suffering a broken collarbone, provided the 'boom' to the Toho attack, running for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 22 direct-snap carries and passing for another. The Tigers rolled up 252 yards of offense in three-and-a-half quarters of varsity play.
THS Coach Anthony Davis said they have as rising sophomore quarterback who's probably the future of the Tigers, but McCullough, with his speed, is the present.
"Blake's part of that junior class from last year that's taken this team over as their own," Davis said. "He helps us move the ball when we get him into space and when you do everyone gets more confidence, which is what we needed.
"We were a lot better today than how we ended last year, especially in the second half."
The Panthers led, 8-6, at the half, but the Tigers dominated the possession in the second half with three long touchdown drives and a big stop on defense.
"Last year the team would have been affected by what happened in the first half in the second and never recovered," Davis said. "We committed too many penalties, we can fix that, but after this game the kids see the process now and what they're capable of in it.
McCullough punctuated Toho's second drive with a two-yard touchdown run, but Gateway answered with a 75-yard drive of its own. Phillip Bangura, he of the 1,200-yard rushing season last year who carried 17 times for 64 yards, went in from five yards out and also scored the two-point conversion to take the lead, which held into halftime.
It was all Tigers in the second half. On fourth-and-5 from the 10, McCullough dropped to pass (he was 7-of-19 for 95 yards), scrambled and scored. After Tohopekaliga's defense held on a fourth-and-1 near midfield, the offense turned the opportunity into points when Malachi Rennie scored on a three-yard jet sweep.
McCullough closed the scoring by dropping a 20-yard touchdown pass right into the hands of DeMario Tolan. Both teams had other long touchdown plays called back due to penalties.
Gateway, which drops to Class 6A for the next two years this fall, auditioned new quarterback Jerry Wright, and he was 7-of-19 for 95 yards.
"We lost some seniors, especially on the offensive line, and it showed," Gateway Coach Marlin Roberts said. "While we have some freshmen coming in who I'm excited about, but this shows how much work we have to do this summer to keep up at the level we've lifted the program too."