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St. Thomas Aquinas rallies from 11 down, beats Columbus

It took nearly five decades.

But Friday night, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas’ football team finally got some payback against Miami Columbus.

Facing what was starting to look like another loss to Columbus after nearly three quarters, the Raiders rallied with 21 unanswered points and defeated the Explorers 38-28 in front of a crowd of 5,189 at Sun Life Stadium.

It was the first time since Oct. 26, 1963, that South Florida’s two premier Catholic school football powerhouses played each other. The all-time series is tied at 2.

St. Thomas, ranked No. 14 nationally by Prep Nation, improved to 9-0 since 2008 in nationally-televised games.

“They did some things we haven’t seen and we did some things they haven’t seen,” St. Thomas coach Rocco Casullo said. “There were a lot of mistakes on both sides. It was just a heck of a football game.”

St. Thomas quarterback John O’Korn led the Raiders’ comeback in the second half and finished with 15 completions on 22 attempts for 164 yards and a touchdown. O’Korn, however, was more impressive running for first downs and making big plays.

O’Korn finished with 112 yards on 11 carries and three rushing touchdowns.

Aquinas’ defense forced five Columbus turnovers, highlighted by Chris Washington’s two interceptions.

“We really hurt ourselves early and made a lot of stupid mistakes, but in the second half we came out and had complete confidence no one would put their heads down,” O’Korn said.

Aquinas running back Fred Coppet paced the offense as well with 25 carries for 147 yards and a touchdown. Coppet also caught a 23-yard touchdown from O’Korn during the comeback.

“I’m so proud of that kid because that’s seven months of hard work and being a leader,” Casullo said. “The kid put the team on his back along with Freddie. I can’t say more about the offensive line.”

Although Aquinas put together long drives early, mistakes kept it from scoring on Columbus (0-1).

Big plays by two of the Explorers’ stars gave them a chance to pull off the victory.

Senior running back Daryl Chestnut finished with 13 carries for 159 yards, including a momentum-swinging 77-yard touchdown run right before the half that gave Columbus a 14-10 lead.

Early in the second half, senior wide receiver Jesus Wilson, an FSU commit, put the Explorers up by 11 when he took an end around toss and maneuvered his way around Aquinas’ secondary for a 41-yard touchdown.

Wilson finished with a stellar nine catches for 138 yards as well, as he and Chestnut continually made big plays throughout the game.

“You just can’t give a team like Aquinas opportunities to come back like we did,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “You have to make them drive a long field the whole time, and we didn’t do that. We gave them short fields and they took advantage.”

O’Korn led a gutsy drive to answer Columbus’ advantage that he capped with a 2-yard touchdown run.

Aquinas defensive lineman Ryan Crozier then made the game-changing play when he partially blocked a punt giving St. Thomas the ball at Columbus’ 17. O’Korn found the end zone from 17 yards out to give Aquinas the lead for good.

“We kept saying to ourselves at times, what are we doing?” Casullo said. “We drop a slant pass. We’re in the wrong defense. It was a nightmare. But that’s what this program is about - regrouping.”

Trailing 31-21, Columbus put together a solid drive capped by Lorenzo Woodley’s 4-yard score with less than six minutes to play.

But the Raiders, however, sealed the outcome with six-play, 77-yard drive that Coppet capped with a 10-yard touchdown run.

“If you look at the size and speed difference in this game, I can’t be more proud of the way they fought,” Merritt said. “It shows this team won’t back down from anyone.”

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