Still soaked from being doused with iced water by his players, Rocco Casullo walked across the Citrus Bowl field and found George Smith waiting for him.
Smith, the legendary former football coach who guided St. Thomas Aquinas to six state titles, shared a congratulatory hug with Casullo moments after Casullo began celebrating his first title as Raiders coach.
The championship tradition continued Friday night for St. Thomas Aquinas.
Led by their senior quarterback John O’Korn’s best passing performance of the season, the Raiders secured the Class 7A state championship with a 41-25 victory over Tallahassee Lincoln in front of a crowd of 3,998 at the Citrus Bowl.
Aquinas (13-2) won its seventh state championship, tying it with Belle Glade Glades Day, Jacksonville University Christian and Tallahassee North Florida Christian for the second-most in state history behind Jacksonville Bolles (11).
“We wanted to win this for Coach [Casullo], and it feels great because this is huge for him,” said O’Korn, a University of Houston commitment who delivered the iced water on Casullo as time expired. “This is my first championship, too, so I wanted to be the one to get him.”
The title also marked the first time Broward County has had more than one state football champion in the same season. St. Thomas Aquinas joins Fort Lauderdale University School, which won the Class 3A state title last week. Weston Cypress Bay will try to give the county three champions Saturday when it takes on Apopka in the Class 8A final.
Casullo, 35, who is in his second season as Aquinas coach after coaching for 10 years as an assistant with Smith, savored the moment following an opening season in which the Raiders went 10-3 and were eliminated in the regional final.
Aquinas finished this season on a 10-game winning streak following a 3-2 start that included close defeats against Don Bosco Prep and Miramar. Aquinas responded by winning its district — something it failed to do last season — and by clinching a trip to state with a monumental state semifinal upset victory against Bradenton Manatee, the nation’s top-ranked team at the time.
“I’m not going to lie, last year was tough for this program and tough for me,” Casullo said. “We knew this year with the senior leadership that good things were going to happen.”
O’Korn, a University of Houston commitment, finished his only full season as Aquinas’ starting quarterback by throwing for a career-high 339 yards on 11-of-26 passing.
O’Korn engineered three touchdowns of over 50 yards in the first quarter to spark a run of 21 unanswered points following Lincoln wide receiver John Burt’s 95-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff. O’Korn’s previous single-game high was 201 yards passing.
O’Korn’s 51-yard touchdown run gave Aquinas the lead for good at 7-6.
Aquinas also amassed a season-high 604 yards and held Lincoln to 225. The Raiders’ previous high this season was 510 total yards.
Corey Holmes and Mark Barr each beat defenders on deep routes and caught long touchdown passes in the first quarter to begin season-best receiving performances of their own.
Holmes finished with 167 yards on four catches, including a perfectly delivered 80-yard touchdown connection. Barr also finished with four catches and had 132 yards, following up that score with a 71-yard touchdown catch on Aquinas’ ensuing drive.
It was the first time all season any Aquinas receiver finished with over 100 yards in a game.
“We couldn’t have been any more pumped up to win this game,” Holmes said. “During the week, we saw how close they played coverage, so we knew we could take advantage.”
Senior running back Fred Coppet, one of the players Casullo said was instrumental in keeping the team focused after the rough start, injured his knee while trying to run out the clock late in the fourth quarter.
After lying on the ground for a couple of minutes, Coppet trotted off the field without assistance. After sitting out only one play, he capped the Raiders’ stellar night with a 40-yard touchdown run with 2:18 left in the fourth. Coppet finished with 151 yards on 22 carries.
“My team had faith throughout the season, and we knew those two losses were flukes,” Coppet said. “We fought hard all year, and we believed we were the best all season. My knee still hurts, but you have to sacrifice to make big things happen.”
Smith, the school’s athletic director, watched the entire game from the sideline and also hugged several Aquinas players as they began to celebrate.
“[What happened this year], the same thing happened to us in 2010 when we lost to Manatee,” Smith said. “Everybody talked about us like we were gone after we lost a couple games [this year]. Well, they’re back now. We didn’t come back. We’re still us, and they proved that.”
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS 41,
L – Burt 95 kickoff return (run failed)
A – O’Korn 51 run (Knight kick)
A – Holmes 80 pass from O’Korn (Knight kick)
A – Barr 71 pass from O’Korn (Knight kick)
L – Joseph 1 run (Crews kick)
L – Williams 50 pass from Joseph (run failed)
A – FG Knight 23
A – O’Korn 3 run (Knight kick)
A – FG Knight 27
A – Coppet 40 run (Knight kick)
L – Gaines 15 pass from Joseph (pass failed)