With nine state championships and a handful of national ones, there isn’t much room for a St. Thomas Aquinas football team to make history.
This year’s version of the Raiders have such an opportunity in front of them.
When the Raiders take the field at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium on Friday for the Class 7A state title game, they will be playing for their third consecutive championship.
Not only has Aquinas never pulled off a three-peat, but no football team from Broward County has either.
A victory over Tampa Plant (13-0) would also make Aquinas just the second football program in Florida history to win a tenth state championship. Jacksonville Bolles goes for its 12th title on Thursday night.
“That helps motivate us,” said Illinois-bound running back Mike Epstein, who scored four touchdowns in the opening half of last week’s rout of Venice in the state semifinals.
“We know we could be the first to do it in Broward County, and that would be huge for St. Thomas Aquinas.
“But, what it all comes down to is the chance to win a state title. That’s what we have all worked for. That has been the goal since February and we’re in the moment. We just need to finish it.”
Just getting this far in the Florida playoffs is something many schools never get to experience and, despite all their success, that isn’t lost on the Raiders.
As the big game draws closer, signs are up around the school with students lining up to by $10 commemorative t-shirts during their lunch hour.
“Never,” Epstein said if weeks like this ever get old. “This will be a special moment in my life forever. I don’t want it to end.”
Roger Harriott, who is 24-3 since returning to his alma mater as head coach last year, has worked hard to keep the distractions to a minimum despite college coaches roaming the campus and all the arrangements which need to be handled.
“Our objective is to keep our kids focused, help them realize that we’re extremely blessed and fortunate to play in a state championship,” said Harriott, who won a state title at University School in 2012 before leaving to coach at FAU.
“We don’t take that for granted. We’re focused on our kids executing between the whistles and helping them realize these strategic measures is what will enable us to produce positive results throughout this game. Plant is a fantastic team.”
Just a few months ago, Aquinas faced adversity as it lost twice in just over a span of a month – something the Raiders hadn’t had to deal with in some time.
The Raiders (11-2) lost their opener to state power Booker T. Washington 27-23 after getting to the 1 on a pass from Allen to Ohio State commit Trevon Grimes — all but ending their national championship hopes.
A few weeks later, Aquinas lost in Las Vegas to national power Bishop Gorman 25-24 on national television as Gorman converted a 2-point conversion in triple overtime after the Raiders missed a field goal which would have won it in the second overtime.
To make the loss more painful, Grimes was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury.
“We all rallied around each other,” said quarterback Jake Allen, a Florida commit who has thrown for 1,804 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.
“When that all happened, everyone left us. We didn’t have media coming to our practice, so with the help of coach Harriott and all these other coaches, we had each other’s back.
“Without the adversity we had, I don’t know if we would be where we are right now. We really came together as a team and now we’re playing great football.”
After a much-anticipated game with rival (and eventual state semifinalist) Deerfield Beach was wiped out because of Hurricane Matthew, the Raiders rebounded from their loss in the desert with a 42-8 victory over Fort Lauderdale.
When the team loads their bus Friday morning to begin the drive north, they will do so riding an eight-game winning streak by outscoring their opponents 346-52.
The Raiders have outscored playoff opponents Palm Beach Lakes, Dwyer, Mater and Venice by an impressive 168-18
“I think our players are in a really good place right now,” Harriott said. “Most importantly, the camaraderie and love is intact. ... We feel like we’re in a real healthy place right now, our kids are extremely humble and grateful for the opportunity.”
As should be the case, Aquinas’ biggest postseason challenge is expected to come in Friday’s title bout.
Plant has a championship pedigree of its own, winning four titles since 2006.
The Panthers are 4-1 in state finals with their lone loss coming to Aquinas 29-7 in 2010 in what was George Smith’s final game as coach.
Plant beat Miramar 31-20 the following year.
“This isn’t just another team,” Epstein said. “We respect them, they made it this far so they’re a good team. But when we’re on our game, we’re tough to beat.”
IF YOU GO
What: The state football finals.
Where: Camping World Stadium, 1 Citrus Bowl Place, Orlando.
Admission: $12 and $17 per session if purchased prior to event; $15 and $20 at the gate; Parking: $10.
2015 state champions – Class 8A: Flanagan; 7A: St. Thomas Aquinas; 6A: Miami Central; 5A: Orlando Bishop Moore; 4A: Booker T. Washington; 3A: Jacksonville Trinity Christian; 2A: Jacksonville University Christian; 1A: Trenton.
Thursday’s results – Class 1A: Pahokee vs. Baker, inc.; 4A: Cocoa vs. Jacksonville Bolles, inc.
Friday’s schedule – Class 2A: Champagnat Catholic (11-1) vs. Jacksonville University Christian (9-2), 10 a.m.; 5A: American Heritage (13-0) vs. Ponte Vedra (13-0), 3; 7A: St. Thomas Aquinas (11-2) vs. Tampa Plant (13-0), 8.
Saturday’s schedule – Class 3A: Chaminade-Madonna (10-3) vs. Jacksonville Trinity Christian (10-3), 10 a.m.; 6A: Carol City (9-3) vs. Lakeland Lake Gibson (13-0), 3; 8A: Southridge (11-2) vs. Orlando Dr. Phillips (12-2), 8.