ORLANDO -- For 37 years Jay Connolly has been the architect of St. Thomas Aquinas’ offensive line, churning out dozens of blue-chip college prospects, including some who have ended up playing in the NFL on Sundays.
His 2012 group wasn’t headlined by any major prospects, but they were the reason in the end why the Raiders got the job done, clinching the school’s seventh state championship with a 41-25 victory over Tallahassee Lincoln at the Citrus Bowl.
Left tackle Kyle Schafenacker (6-4, 285), left guard Zachary Provin (6-3, 265), center Nicholas Linder (6-3, 270), right guard Austin Bland (6-3, 285) and right tackle Ryan Crozier (6-4, 280) paved the way for a season-high 604 yards of offense for the Raiders.
On a night the running game sputtered early on, the Raiders offensive line didn’t let Lincoln near quarterback John O’Korn, who threw for a career-high 339 yards and two touchdowns.
It was quite the encore performance a week after bullying previously nationally No. 1-ranked Bradenton Manatee, which featured a defensive line with four Football Bowl Subdivision prospects.
“This wasn’t our best group ever, but they got better and better and better,” said Connolly, who was the second to enjoy an ice bath after players first showered coach Rocco Casullo.
“I’ve been coaching the o-line for a lot of years and my goal was always to get them playoff ready and improve by the eighth game of the season. Early on in the season we got some criticism for penalties — jumping offsides, holding, missed blocks. They didn’t let it bother them. They just kept working and working until we got as good as we are now.”
Linder, the younger brother of University of Miami three-year starting guard Brandon Linder, said playing the role of underdog in the playoffs fueled him and his teammates.
“When we were 3-2 after losing to Miramar, everybody thought we were done,” Linder said. “Coach Connolly just lectured us on how we were going through the crucible, and how it’s going to get harder, and we’ve got to keep on fighting. We fixed everything and kept on grinding. It feels good to shut all the haters up.”
Schafenacker, headed to UConn, and Crozier, one of the two juniors who will be back next season (Linder is the other), were the players who carried the water cooler over to Connolly and dunked him with about four minutes remaining in the game.
“Great kid who had incredible year,” Connolly said of Schafenacker before moving down the list of his linemen. “Zac was the smallest of them all, but probably the smartest. He’s going to do big things at Colgate. Austin, headed to FAU, had two knee surgeries in the off-season and started slow because he wasn’t quite there. Down the stretch he really improved.
“Linder is smaller than his brother, but just as smart and just as tough. He made all of our line calls. He and Crozier are going to be the heart next year.”
Thinking next year, already?
Connolly, an English teacher at Aquinas who has been a part of all 14 state final appearances, said he’ll keep coming back to the Raiders and mentoring linemen until they force him to leave. He turns 61 on March 5.
“He’s a great man,” Linder said of Connolly. “He’s like a father to all of us. If we screw up, he’ll fix us and build us back up. We couldn’t be who we are without him.”