St. Thomas Aquinas and underappreciated don’t usually go in the same sentence. But after an early exit — by its standards — in last year’s postseason, the six-time state championship program found teams ready for their shot at the Raiders.
Senior linebacker Scott Northcutt and his teammates heard more about other defenses in the county during the preseason. They took it to heart, trying their best to uphold the school’s legacy and prove people wrong.
“In recent years, schools always feared St. Thomas, but now teams are coming in more intense and that allows us to play more intense and shows how good we really can be,” Northcutt said. “The losses last season and getting out of the playoffs early opened up people’s eyes. It’s on us to win and continue the tradition.”
With seven new starters on defense, however, a learning curve was inevitable. Coach Rocco Casullo believed the Raiders (10-2), who will host Boyd Anderson (9-2) in a Class 7A regional final Friday night, needed time to build confidence.
According to Casullo, the secondary — considered the “weakest link” by some heading into the season — has given up just three passing touchdowns. Senior free safety Chris Washington has a team-high five interceptions. Senior James Crawford has added another four at strong safety.
“We’ve all been together for a long time, and they started to believe in themselves. That’s most important: Have confidence in yourself and confidence in your ability,” Casullo said. “You’ve seen that when we watch film on Saturdays. They’re understanding the game plan, they’re getting lined up and they’re playing fast. When you do that, good things happen.”
Since losing to Miramar in a 27-24 overtime decision on Oct. 5, St. Thomas Aquinas has won seven in a row.
During that stretch, the Raiders have posted three shutouts, and opponents have been held to just seven points two other times for an average of 6.7 points per game. Before the 48-0 victory over South Broward in Week 6, the defense allowed 105 points through five games (21 points per game).
“With the coaches that we have, I felt like the defense would have clicked ever since the first game,” Washington said. “Coach has an outstanding scheme that puts us in a position to make plays.
“As the season goes on, you start to make the plays because it’s not the first time we’ve seen them.”
This shutdown mode late in the season reminds Casullo of the 2010 unit that helped win both the state and national titles. The Raiders’ front seven — what Washington calls one of the best in the country — powers a 3-4 defense.
Northcutt said he and his teammates watch highlights of the past defenses and read up on their statistics, saying, “It’s always in the back of our heads.”
“As a team you always play for the history,” Washington said. “We try to compare ourselves to the national championship team and try to do what they did.”
Aquinas will be without a key component of the unit, senior defensive lineman Joey Bosa, an Ohio State commit, against Boyd Anderson. He committed a flagrant foul late in the 38-7 regional semifinal over Plantation.
Other members of that touted front seven — senior linebackers Matthew Brewer, Javaris Hendricks, Lance Virgile and Edward Curry as well as junior defense lineman Anthony Moten and freshman defensive tackle Nicholson Bosa — will have to fill in.
“With Bosa being out and one of the captains on the team and the guy everyone looks up to, now that he can’t play he’s helping out some of the younger guys stepping up,” Northcutt said.
“Nobody’s really worried about it because we have full faith in the guys behind him.”
Last year, St. Thomas’ season ended in a 6-3 loss to Dwyer in the regional final. In 2010, en route to the Class 5A championship, the Raiders beat Boyd Anderson 47-6 in the same round.
Casullo expects a hard-fought game against the Cobras, with Friday night’s winner facing either top-ranked Bradenton Manatee or Fort Pierce Central.
Boyd Anderson has won its two postseason games by scores of 13-7 and 6-3. Three members of its coaching staff, including head coach Wayne Blair, were once with Aquinas.
Much like the Raiders, the Cobras’ defense has dominated opponents. It has three shutouts and has given up 9.5 points per game.
“It doesn’t matter how you start, it matters how you finish, and you’re seeing that now,” Casullo said. “I think the teams that continue on in the playoffs have great defensive play and great play at quarterback, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”