St. Thomas Aquinas, the nation’s top-ranked team in the preseason, has been out of the running for the mythical national title for some time now.
But the Raiders still have a shot at a couple big achievements next week in Orlando. They can become only the 12th team in state history to win three championships in a row and only the second to reach double digits in crowns.
Aquinas (11-2) earned the opportunity Friday night by smashing previously unbeaten Venice 46-8 in front of a sellout crowd at Piccolo Stadium.
The Indians (12-1) averaged 49.8 points and 346.6 yards rushing behind senior star tailback Matt “Speedy” Laroche on their way to the Class 7A state semifinals. But the Raiders put the clamps on the Miami native, who had run for 2,665 yards and 37 touchdowns in his first dozen games this season.
Laroche finished with a season-low 71 yards rushing on 19 carries and didn’t score for the first time this season. He picked up 30 of his on one burst in the second quarter.
“He wasn’t really a focal point, to be honest with you,” Raiders coach Roger Harriott said. “After their previous game they questioned our tradition. I think their coach said, ‘They’re not playing the St. Thomas tradition — they’re playing the St. Thomas 2016 team.’ Our guys took that to heart and wanted to show that we’re also a part of this great tradition at St. Thomas Aquinas.”
The Raiders, who lost their season opener to four-time defending Class 4A state champion Miami Booker T. Washington and then another heartbreaker on the road against nationally No. 1 ranked Las Vegas Bishop Gorman in overtime, jumped out to a 21-0 lead after one quarter and were up 43-8 at halftime.
The 35-point margin forced a running clock in the second half. Harriott put his offensive backups on the field to start the second half.
Before they forced a running clock, Aquinas’ starters put on a show.
Quarterback Jake Allen, a University of Florida commitment, threw for 185 yards on 9-of-11 passing and had touchdown tosses of 54 yards and 8 yards to Jordan Merrell (FAU commitment). But it was senior running back Michael Epstein, an Illinois commitment and Aquinas’ leading rusher, who put on a clinic.
Epstein ran for 75 yards on 15 carries and scored on three touchdown runs of 2 yards each in the first half. He also caught four passes for 81 yards and scored on a 9-yard shovel pass with 1:33 to remaining in the half.
“Can’t do it without my O-line and quarterbacks and receivers,” Epstein said of the first four-touchdown game of his high school career.
“These last few weeks — many weeks, actually — we’ve been on a run. We’ve had running clocks, putting up points and focusing on our game plan. We’re really tough to beat when we’re on our game.”
The only bad news for Aquinas: Standout junior defensive end Nikolas Bonitto sustained a high ankle sprain late in the first half and had to be helped off the field.
Other than that injury, Aquinas should be pretty healthy and ready to go next week in the Class 7A state final. The Raiders, who have won nine state titles and who will be making their 17th appearance in the state final, will take on No. 2-ranked Tampa Plant (13-0) next Friday night at 8 p.m. at Camping World Stadium.
The Panthers have won four state titles, with their last crown coming in 2011 with a win over Miramar in the 8A title game. Aquinas has won championships in its past six trips to the state finals.