For years, the St. Thomas Aquinas football program had been consistently successful, with multiple state titles and numerous future college and pro stars.
But in the 2000's, Aquinas started creating an assembly line of college quarterbacks.
It started with Matthew Dougherty, who led the Raiders to the state title game in 2004 and then went on to be one of the best quarterbacks in the history of Brown University.
Then Wesley Carroll took over in 2005 and 2006 and went on to lead Mississippi State to a victory over UCF in the 2007 Liberty Bowl. Carroll would later transfer to FIU and lead the Panthers to two bowl games and their first conference championship.
Then it was Ryan Becker's turn. Under him, Aquinas took their game to the next level.
In 2007, the Raiders won their fourth state title and first since 1999. Then in 2008, Aquinas not only won the state championship in 2008, but the national championship, too. Becker went on to lead Penn to the Ivy League championship in 2010. The Quakers won it again in 2012, but Becker was injured that season.
Then Jake Rudock led Aquinas to the state and national championship in 2010, sending off longtime head coach George Smith into the sunset.
“Coach Smith is a legendary coach,” Rudock said. “He took me under his wing and made me one of his own.”
After Rudock went on to Iowa to be the starting quarterback, Max Lescano and John O’Korn stepped in to continue the tradition of excellence.
Lescano went on to be a defensive back and punt returner in Princeton.
Last year as a senior, O’Korn led the Raiders to the state championship with 2,552 passing yards and 22 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He also ran 95 times for 576 yards and 15 touchdowns.
In their Class 7A title game win over Tallahassee Lincoln, O’Korn was named MVP after throwing for 339 yards, running for 95 yards and accounting four touchdowns.
“There’s nothing like it,” said O’Korn, who now plays for Houston. “It’s a football factory, and it’s basically a college program and it prepares us so much for the next level, and the brotherhood that we have there carries on for the rest of our lives. I talk to those guys all the time, and it’s just something that I’m never going to lose.”
But it’s no longer just a football factory. It’s also producing quality quarterbacks who are ready to step in and play at the next level.
Their reputation has attracted college coaches and scouts from all over the country.
“It definitely did a lot,” O’Korn said. “There were different [college] coaches there every single day, so the exposure we got was better than any other high school program in the country, and that was huge for getting me exposure and getting other guys exposure.”
Said Rudock: “It’s a real humbling experience knowing that you’re playing with a lot of guys that could potentially play in the NFL. Gio Bernard in Cincinnati is doing a great job, and I can walk in and say I played with that guy.”
Despite being the wide receivers coach who didn't directly coach the quarterbacks, Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carte had a lasting impact on O’Korn.
“It was a lot of fun,” O’Korn said. “He’s a really energetic, passionate guy, and he expects nothing but the best. He is a perfectionist and he expects that from his players, as well. He pushed us, so it was a lot of fun playing for him.”
Rudock, a sophomore, has led Iowa to bowl eligibility and has 14 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions. O’Korn, as a freshman, has Houston in the mix for the American Athletic Conference title. The Cougars rank 17th in the nation in passing offense with 310.9 yards per game.
Meanwhile at Aquinas, senior quarterback Wade Freebeck has the Raiders back in the playoffs looking to win the state title just as Carroll, Rudock, and O’Korn did before him. He has completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,503 yards and 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Freebeck has committed to the University of Pittsburgh after being recruited by quarterbacks coach and former NFL quarterback Brooks Bollinger. The Panthers’ current quarterback is a senior, so Freebeck will have a chance to start as a freshman as O’Korn did.
“He has done really well this year,” O’Korn said of his old teammate and friend. “I worked with him a lot before I came here. I’m really proud of him. He has been working really hard and getting better every week.”
Regardless of how this season ends for St. Thomas, its quarterback tradition will continue. And in a few years, it will be interesting to see whether the football program will be known for producing NFL quarterbacks, too.