State football playoffs | St. Thomas Aquinas

Manatee stands in way of St. Thomas Aquinas again


John O’Korn is a big reason St. Thomas is one victory from another trip to the state title game. Now he just needs to beat Manatee.

Friday’s state semifinals

Class 8A: Columbus (9-4) at Cypress Bay (11-2), 7:30.

Class 7A: Bradenton Manatee (13-0) at St. Thomas Aquinas (11-2), 7:30.

Class 6A: Central (10-2) at Naples (12-0), 7:30.

Class 5A: Immokalee (10-3) vs. Jackson (8-4), 7:30.

Special to The Miami Herald

In 2009, two-time defending state champion St. Thomas Aquinas watched Bradenton Manatee jump out to a fast start in the Class 5A state semifinals. Though the visiting Raiders — also reigning national champions — fought back, they ran out of time, having their 37-game winning streak snapped in a 28-20 loss.

Senior running back Frederick Coppet still remembers how he felt on the sidelines. He also recalls feeling the exact opposite the following year when host Aquinas beat the Hurricanes 31-7 in the same round on the way to its sixth state title and second national championship.

“That whole offseason we worked so hard, and we were ready for them that time and showed up big time,” Coppet said. “When they came back down to our home field and we showed them ... revenge is always sweet. That was a great feeling, and we went on to win states. That made it even more better.”

It will be a familiar plot when nationally top-ranked Manatee (13-0) travels to St. Thomas Aquinas for Friday night’s Class 7A state semifinal. Yet there is a twist this time around: The Hurricanes hold a 25-game winning streak and come in as favorites.

Senior quarterback John O’Korn, one of the main reasons the Raiders (11-2) have bounced back from an early exit in last season’s playoffs, will delve into the rivalry for the first time.

When O’Korn moved from State College, Pa., last fall, he sat behind starter Max Lescano, who now plays for Princeton. Coppet jokes that O’Korn was “pretty slow.” But even on film, his teammates saw the newcomer’s potential. His scrambles showed the promise of something more.

One of his top targets, senior wide receiver Mark Barr, as well as the other Raiders welcomed O’Korn with a wake-up call during his first practice. They displayed the notorious quickness of Florida high school football.

The University of Houston commit, in turn, spent this past offseason working on speed and agility drills to make him more dynamic. Until then, O’Korn considered himself more of a pocket passer. This year, his ability to run with the ball has complemented his passing game.

“Every week he gives you something different,” Coppet said. “He can run the ball, he can throw the ball, he can sit in the pocket, he can scramble and throw the ball on the run. There’s a lot of things John can do, and that’s one of the best football players I’ve seen in a while.”

Teammates see O’Korn’s leadership quality — mainly that of positive thinking — as his biggest asset. During the season opener against Columbus with the team down 11 points, O’Korn remained optimistic. The Raiders would go on to win 38-28.

“I just try to stay positive,” O’Korn said. “Big things happen when you stay positive and keep moving forward and forget bad plays and keep picking guys up. Keep a positive outlook on everything and everything works out.”

Coach Rocco Casullo believes O’Korn has exceeded expectations. For the season, he has thrown for 2,029 yards with 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions. O’Korn has added 404 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.

“He’s really done tremendous,” Casullo said. “His stats are one thing, but you watch his poise in the pocket and reads he’s making now and that’s what top Division I recruit quarterbacks do, which is very good to see.”

Aquinas-Manatee provides a marquee quarterback matchup: Manatee is led by its own Division I recruit at quarterback in senior Cord Sandberg.

The Mississippi State commit has thrown for 2,462 yards with 34 touchdowns and just one interception on the season. He has rushed for another 596 yards and 10 scores.

“They both have this athleticism that is amazing for a quarterback, especially,” Barr said. “They’re big, they can run it, they can throw it.”

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