From its first practice in the spring, Booker T. Washington players and coaches have repeated the same two words to each other as motivation - "national champions."
The Tornadoes did not open the season as the nation’s top-ranked team.
But Friday night, they took a major step toward claiming that spot.
Led by sophomore quarterback Daniel Richardson’s four touchdown passes and a goal-line stand in the closing seconds, the Tornadoes defeated St. Thomas Aquinas 27-23 at Traz Powell Stadium.
Booker T. (1-0), ranked No. 6 by USA Today, winners of four consecutive state titles and five since 2007, defeated a nationally-ranked opponent for the second consecutive week after having defeated Plantation American Heritage in a preseason classic.
Aquinas (0-1), a nine-time state champion, entered the game ranked No. 1 in every national ranking.
"I feel like we had a great game plan this week," Booker T. coach Tim "Ice" Harris said. "Coming off playing the No. 6 team and then coming back to beat the No. 1 team it just says a lot about this program and that we’re not afraid to go out and play the best teams."
The victory will undoubtedly vault Booker T. closer to the top spot in the polls. Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman, which plays Aquinas on Sept. 30, entered the week ranked No. 2 and has been voted mythical national champions two consecutive seasons by USA Today.
"This sets up for our ultimate goal to be the No. 1 team in the country," Harris said. "We set up a schedule where all of our non-district opponents are nationally-ranked because we knew it was the only way to get where we want to go."
The game was attended by numerous alumni of both schools including two Hall of Famers – University of Miami and Aquinas great Michael Irvin and Booker T. Washington alum and former Miami Dolphin Larry Little.
They watched a classic that had seven lead changes go back and forth until Richardson’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Sherod Johnson with 2:26 remaining.
"We just had to play as a unit and we knew [Aquinas] was good but we kept preaching to each other that we’re better," Richardson said. "People didn’t think we could be No. 1 but we came in tonight and proved it."
Following the go-ahead touchdown pass, the game went into a lightning delay that lasted roughly 40 minutes.
When play resumed, Aquinas drove down to the Booker T. 1-yard line after quarterback Jake Allen connected with Trevon Grimes on a slant pass that set up first-and-goal.
But on the next play Allen faced a heavy rush from Booker T.’s defensive linemen and tried lobbing a quick pass over the blitz.
The rushed throw was intercepted by Dedrick Mackey with 23.9 seconds, sealing the win for the Tornadoes.
Mackey’s interception was one of five turnovers by Aquinas (0-1).
"I knew [Grimes] hadn’t crossed the goal line on the play before," Mackey said. "Those guys did the job up front."
Mike Esptein led Aquinas, ranked No. 1 in multiple polls, by rushing for 131 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown.
Richardson completed 18 of 32 passes for 269 yards and threw two interceptions.
Johnson caught six passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
Allen threw for 255 yards but his interception with 3:35 remaining, picked off by Richard Dames, led to Booker T.’s winning score.
Guy Thomas recovered two fumbles for the Tornadoes.
Richardson threw a pair of touchdown passes earlier in the game to Deandre Williams including a 22-yarder that tied the score at 14.
Marco Salani connected on the first of his three field goals to give Aquinas a 17-14 halftime lead.
But trailing 20-14 late in the third quarter, Richardson found Williams open over the middle for a 57-yard touchdown that gave Booker T. a 21-20 lead.
"We achieved our goal, but we have to keep grinding and stay on top," Mackey said.