The St. Thomas Aquinas football machine doesn’t always crank right up, but once the Raiders get warm, watch out.
On a chilly Friday night at the Citrus Bowl, Aquinas made Broward County football history by winning their third consecutive Class 7A state championship by beating Tampa Plant 45-6.
The Raiders (12-2) had to punt on their first possession but weren’t challenged much by a Plant team looking for a perfect season (13-1), as well as a fifth state title since 2006.
Instead, Aquinas rolled right past the Panthers en route to the 10th state championship in school history.
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The Raiders became just the second program in Florida history to hit double digits in football titles and are one championship away from Jacksonville Bolles for tying the state record.
Championship No. 11 will have to wait until next December, but at Aquinas, it’s expected to come.
“This is absolutely tremendous, it really is,” said George Smith, who coached the Raiders until 2010 and won six titles at Aquinas including the first one in 1992 with a sophomore running back named Roger Harriott.
Harriott took over as head coach at his alma mater last year and is now 25-3 with the Raiders including 10-0 in the postseason.
“Roger and his staff,” Smith continued, “have done a tremendous job for our school and for our kids.”
Said Harriott: “Our kids played very efficient football. They had their focus on winning a down at a time. That has been our M.O. the past couple of weeks. As humans, we’re creatures of habit and we have been able to program that mindset. We’re extremely proud of them.”
Plant, which lost to Aquinas in the title game in 2010, drove down the field on its initial possession, but Adetutu Daranijo picked off Dane Frantzen at the 13.
It felt like Plant’s big chance had passed and, indeed it had.
On the ensuing play, Illinois-bound running back Mike Epstein broke off a 27-yard run. A few plays later, Jake Allen (committed to Florida) and Mike Harley (West Virginia) hooked up for the first time Friday — this one from 24 yards out.
Plant’s next drive got into Aquinas territory for a play before punter Nick Rice misplayed the snap and was grounded by Grayson Crozier.
On the next play, Allen found Joshua Palmer from 28 yards out and a 14-0 lead.
By the time Plant scored its first points, Aquinas had already built a 21-0 lead after Epstein plunged in from inside the 1 on a fourth down play with 6:41 remaining in the opening half.
The Raiders led 31-6 at the half thanks to a field goal from Marco Salani and an another Allen touchdown pass — this one to Jordan Merrell from 18 yards out.
Plant got the ball deep inside Aquinas territory in the third quarter on an interception return, only to be rebuffed. The Raiders answered with another Allen-to-Harley score.
The Raiders got the running clock they wanted in the closing seconds of the third when Harley and Allen connected for their third touchdown (62 yards) to make it 45-6 and set the 35-point mercy rule in motion.
“You could put all the talent in the world together but it’s about bonding as a band of brothers and that’s what we did as a team,” said Epstein, who ended with 91 total yards.
“It’s not going to work if you’re not all close and have a brotherhood. Coach Harriott did a great job of keeping everything together.”
By the end of the third, Allen had passed for 329 yards with five touchdowns and that’s what he ended with.
Harley caught three of the touchdowns and accounted for 133 yards.
“It just feels great,” Allen said. “To be state champions, but to do it in three-peat style, means that much more. I had faith in my guys and believe we had the best team in the country and I just expected this.
“Couldn’t have closed it out any better than this.”
Aquinas ended up having a running clock in all five of its playoff games this season as it outscored opponents 213-24.
The Raiders end the season on a nine-game winning streak since losing to probable national champion Las Vegas Bishop Moore in triple overtime in October.
“I’m extremely proud,” Harriott said. “I’m happy for our student body, the history of our program, all of our alumni, all of those who enabled us to have this opportunity and what better way to celebrate than with a three-peat and represent Broward County.
“Our guys showed great resilience. Those types of adverse circumstances breed opportunities for kids to develop character and they demonstrated not only a love for this game but real leadership and as a result, we’re here tonight enjoying another championship.”
The Big 10
St. Thomas Aquinas football state championships
1992: Class 4A, coach George Smith
1997: Class 5A, coach George Smith
1999: Class 4A, coach George Smith
2007: Class 5A, coach George Smith
2008: Class 5A, coach George Smith
2010: Class 5A, coach George Smith
2012: Class 7A, coach Rocco Casullo
2014: Class 7A, coach Rocco Casullo
2015: Class 7A, coach Roger Harriott
2016: Class 7A, coach Roger Harriott