The St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders, striving for back-to-back state titles, faced an undefeated team and an overflow hostile crowd Friday night.
But the Raiders, who have eight state titles already — second-most of any school in the state — have been down that avenue many times and never blinked.
After falling behind early, they showed the poise of a champion as they came back and cruised to a 27-10 victory over Bradenton Braden River in a Class 7A state semifinal at Braden River High School.
And with that, St. Thomas finds itself headed back in familiar place — the Citrus Bowl in Orlando — where it will take on Viera, which upset Lake City Columbia 42-23 in its semifinal, in the 7A state title game at 7 p.m. Friday.
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“We have a great group of kids and extraordinary coaches that are mentors and we were adamant about getting this done [Friday night],” first-year St. Thomas coach Roger Harriott said. “We weren’t going to take no for an answer. Moving on past [Friday night] was the necessary and only objective.”
The Raiders (13-1) did it thanks to a balanced offensive attack and a defense, which after getting sliced up pretty good in the first quarter and a half, settled down and held the Pirates (13-1), a school in just its 10th year of existence and making its state semifinal debut, scoreless the rest of the way.
With an overflow crowd of 5,000 packed in and lined up along the fences, the Pirates delighted their faithful by opening the game with a nine-play, 80-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead when Braden River quarterback and FIU commit Jacob Huesman found Travis Williams for a 6-yard touchdown.
But, led by quarterback Jake Allen, the Raiders answered as they drove 66 yards in 10 plays, with Allen finding Trevon Grimes for a 5-yard score that tied the score at 7.
“Even though that was our first possession, I thought that drive really was really huge,” said Allen, who finished a solid night with 15-of-22 passing for 214 yards and two touchdowns. “We showed them: ‘Here we are. We showed up, game on and we weren’t going anywhere.’ ”
After Braden River retook the lead on a 35-yard field goal, the Raiders took a lead they would not lose the rest of the night when Allen completed a five-play, 65-yard drive with a 12-yard scoring toss to Dominic Thieman.
The big play on the drive came when Allen found Jonathan Moore for 52 yards down to the 14 on third-and-11.
Then came perhaps the biggest defensive play of the night for the Raiders when defensive end Nikolas Bonitto broke through and clobbered Huesman on a third-down pass attempt that jarred the ball loose. Tyler Dunning was there to recover at the Braden River 40.
Aquinas then took advantage of the short field on an eight-play drive and scoring on third-and-goal from the 1 on a James Charles plunge 20 seconds before halftime, giving St. Thomas a 21-10 lead at the break.
“It was time for our D to make a big play and when I saw the quarterback hesitate, I knew I could get there and then got a good piece of the ball and popped it loose,” Bonitto said. “Defensively we knew we had to step it up after they went down the field on us on that opening drive and we just went out there and got after it.”
Still up 21-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Raiders were poised to put the game away sitting on the Braden River 3-yard line.
Then came the most controversial play of the night when BR defensive back Roman Grissett came out of the pile with the ball having stripped it from Charles and took off down the sideline for what the Pirates thought was a touchdown.
After initially determining the play was dead and allowing the Raiders to retain possession, officials huddled and wound up giving Braden River the ball, but no touchdown.
Five plays later, faced with a punting situation, the Pirates tried an ill-fated fake attempt that the Raiders never bit on and took over at the BR 17.
That led to a 30-yard James McCourt field goal with 5:24 left. Frank Coppet then picked Huesman off on the very next play, setting McCourt up for another short field goal with 2:10 left, and it was time to start dumping the Gatorade and water on Harriott.
“My hats off to Braden River, they really showed up to play tonight and gave us everything we could handle,” Harriott said. “The score is a little deceptive. We feel very fortunate to get out of here with a win tonight. We’re moving on to states and we’re grateful.”
BR - Williams 6 pass from Huesman (Thoma kick)
STA - Grimes 5 pass from Allen (McCourt kick)
BR - FG Thoma 35
STA - Thieman 12 pass from Allen (McCourt kick)
STA - Charles 1 run (McCourt kick)
STA - FG McCourt 30
STA - FG McCourt 27
Rushing (att-yds) -- STA: Allen 2-(-8), Irvin 1-3, Moore 1-4, Bruce 2-7, Charles 11-22, Kincaide 15-89. BRDR: Huesman 4-(-22), Austin 2-12, Fenwick 11-49, Hodo 16-56.
Passing (comp-att-int, yds)-- STA: Allen 15-22-0, 214. BRDR: Huesman 15-25-2, 121.
Receiving (rec-yds-TD) -- STA: Bruce 1-2, Harley 1-11, Cullins 1-24, Thieman 3-31, Irvin 2-35, Moore 1-52, Grimes 6-59. BRDR: Fenwick 1-1, Jenkins 1-8, Austin 2-11, Williams 2-16, Neuzil 4-31, Hodo 5-50.