St. Thomas Aquinas took a surprising step back in 2011. The Raiders failed to win their district for the first time in 14 years and didn’t qualify for the state semifinals for the first time in eight years.
Hope the rest of Broward County enjoyed the rare off year.
Aquinas will be back on top in 2012.
Rocco Casullo’s second season at the helm ought to be more fruitful now that the quarterback position appears to be solidified under senior John O’Korn. The 6-3, 205-pound University of Houston commitment wasn’t quite ready to handle the job last season. But with an experienced line in front of him led by Austin Bland (6-3, 275), Zack Provin (6-3, 265) and Kyle Shafenacker (6-4, 285) and plenty of weapons around him including tailback Fred Coppet (5-9, 176), the Raiders offense shouldn’t have any off days.
Defensively, Ohio State-bound defensive end Joey Bosa (6-5, 270) is one of the best in the country. He has some backup this year. Senior outside linebacker Lance Virgile (6-2, 215) and a cast of talented juniors led by cornerback Al Harris (5-11, 165) and defensive tackle Anthony Moten (6-3, 265) should keep Aquinas among the most elite defenses in the country.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Aquinas won’t be tested.
The Raiders once again face a tough schedule highlighted by games with 8A state semifinalist Miami Columbus (Aug. 31 at Sun Life Stadium), national power Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) on ESPN on Sept. 14 and trips to 8A state runner-up Miramar (Oct. 5) and Cypress Bay (Sept. 7). All will be among the first five regular-season games for the Raiders.
The final test to get back to Orlando and the Class 7A state title game: a likely semifinal date with nationally ranked Bradenton Manatee. The Raiders would get to serve as host.
2. Miramar: The Patriots have gone 36-5 during the past three seasons. The only South Florida team better? The guys listed above them, who went 38-4.
The key to sustaining dominance is reloading, and that’s what the Patriots have done, reeling in a few big transfers while growing a talented crop of young players on the JV. The key — as it was after the Patriots’ 2009 championship season — will be meshing it all.
Star linebacker Jermaine Grace, the lone returning starter from last season’s Dark Side defense, will have help. Junior middle linebacker Ryan Samuels (5-11, 210) is a young leader in the making and extremely bright (5.5 GPA). Offensively, All-Broward first-team lineman Michael Miranda, receiver Sean Avant and running back Alex Lee will provide the veteran presence.
In the end, Miramar’s hopes of a return trip to Orlando will probably hinge on quarterback play. If a true leader emerges, the Patriots should make it three trips to the Citrus Bowl in four years.
3. Cypess Bay: Injuries to quarterback Jaranta Lewis and tailback Matt Dayes ultimately sucked the flash out of the Lightning’s offense in 2011. This season, coach Mark Guandolo hopes a change from the Wing-T to a mix of the spread and I-formation puts a bolt back into it.
Tulane-bound linebacker Nico Marley (5-9, 190) and cornerback Boaz Joseph (6-0, 195) are among six starters back on a defense which allowed just 14.2 point a game last season. If they find some help and get stingier in 2012, it could be Cypress Bay and not Miramar that gets to Orlando in Class 8A.
4. Boyd Anderson: The Cobras earned their first district title since 2008 last season, but were stripped of it when the FHSAA ruled they had used ineligible players. This year’s team seems capable of winning the district again behind big offensive tackle Sandley Jean-Felix (6-5, 325) and quarterback Greg Hankerson, who threw for 1,962 yards, 19 TDs and 8 INTs last season. The secondary, featuring Larry Hill (5-10, 175) and Tayshawn Griffith (6-0, 190), should be very good.
5. South Plantation: Coach Doug Gatewood said he had a special sophomore class two years ago. A year after leading the Paladins to their first playoff appearance since 2007, those sophomores-turned-seniors will try to win their first district title since 2005 and go deep into the playoffs.
Reigning Broward County rushing leader Alex Collins — among those 2010 sophomores — has gained 25 pounds since last season and should improve on the 1,786 yards and 28 touchdowns he produced in 2011. Defense could ultimately be the Paladins’ Achilles heel.
6. Ely: Former Tigers quarterback Charles Hafley Jr. has returned home and is hoping to restore tradition. Ely caught a break and made the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons when rival Boyd Anderson was forced to forfeit its district title. This year, star cornerback Rashard Robinson — among five starters back on each side of the ball — will try and guide them there by slowing down the star receiver and team listed right below.
7. Northeast: The Hurricanes rebounded from an 0-4 start to reach the regional semifinals last season. If Northeast is going to go farther than last year, it will need to find a dependable quarterback to get star receiver Stacy Coley (6-1, 175) the ball. Defensively, coach Donnell Bennett said his team will bring a lot of pressure with the blitz and allow its talented secondary to make plays.
8. McArthur: The Mustangs extinguished a 16-game losing streak and were a 7-4 pleasant surprise in 2011. Now, Andrew Rhoden’s squad — loaded with freshman and sophomore talent — will experience being the hunted. Junior transfer Terrell Bonds, who threw for 2,046 yards and 21 TDs and ran for 406 last year at Orlando Liberty High, will be one of two triggermen in the Mustangs’ spread offense. If all the young guys can settle into a role around him, McArthur should be playoff-bound.
9. Plantation: The Colonels bring back eight defensive starters, including BCS-caliber recruits in cornerback Sojourn Shelton (5-10, 170) and defensive tackle Monty Nelson (6-2, 300). The key to success, though, will be on the offensive line, according to coach Steve Davis. If his team can’t score more than it did last year (it averaged just 13 points a game), the Colonels will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
10. Taravella: Thirteen starters are back for the Trojans, who made the quick turnaround from two wins in 2010 to district champions in 2011. If they’re going to repeat that feat, senior Lorenzo Jerome is going to need some help.
11. Deerfield Beach: The Bucks’ 13-year run of playoff appearances finally came to an end last season even though the team actually won one more game than it did in 2010. Junior tailback Brandon Powell (5-9, 175) and nine other returning starters on offense — many of whom play both ways — might get Deerfield back in the playoffs in 2012.
12. Stranahan: Size up front won’t be an issue for the Dragons. With district runner-up Pembroke Pines Charter getting hit hard by graduation, Hollywood Hills welcoming in a new coach and Archbishop McCarthy still trying to find its footing, expect a new district champion.
The rest: 13. Cooper City, 14. Flanagan, 15. South Broward, 16. Everglades, 17. Western, 18. Monarch, 19. Archbishop McCarthy, 20. Hollywood Hills, 21. West Broward, 22. Coral Springs; 23. Fort Lauderdale; 24. Pines Charter; 25. Douglas; 26. Nova; 27. Coconut Creek; 28. Coral Glades; 29. Piper.