Two things that rarely happen to St. Thomas Aquinas’ football team happened this season.
They got shut out.
And later they got blown out.
But despite those two defeats, the Raiders are still in striking distance of matching a pair of state records with two more victories.
If Aquinas prevails the next two weeks, it will equal the state record for consecutive state titles shared by five other schools including Miami Central and Miami Booker T. Washington.
It would also be the Raiders’ 11th state title all-time, equaling the mark held by Jacksonville Bolles for the most in Florida.
St. Thomas has won 19 consecutive postseason games and is a staggering 43-3 in the playoffs since 2006 when it suffered its famous double-overtime loss in the state finals to Lakeland. The Raiders haven’t lost a playoff game since 2013 in the regional finals to Dwyer.
So has St. Thomas Aquinas, which was shut out for the first time in 21 years back in September by Arizona’s Centennial High, become consistent enough on offense?
And was the 44-27 loss to Miramar an aberration by a defense that hadn’t allowed that many points in its previous eight games combined?
I say, and I think the past three playoff games can back me up, yes and yes.
The Raiders have made adjustments to their offense even before the Miramar game and have seen the fruits of those moves.
Aquinas even coaxed longtime offensive line coaching guru, Jay Connolly, out of retirement a week before that game, and it’s made a huge difference.
The Raiders are averaging 47.3 points in their three playoff wins so far this season, and have amassed over 200 yards rushing the past two weeks.
Can Aquinas carry this momentum on the road against Venice?
Class 7A state semifinal – St. Thomas Aquinas (11-2) at Venice (12-1): The Raiders smothered Venice 46-8 in Fort Lauderdale in this round last season.
After the game a Venice fan making some choice remarks about Aquinas that were caught on video shortly after the game ended accusing its program of "exploiting black men."
Venice coach John Peacock was later quoted by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune saying that you had to “be a magician” to beat the Raiders due to the immense talent on its roster which included several transfers.
A year later, the rematch will be played before what will be a raucous, small-town, "Friday Night Lights"-style atmosphere at Venice’s home stadium.
Venice’s offense is led by quarterback Bryce Carpenter wide receiver Jaivon Heiligh. Each has been pivotal to the Indians scoring 41 or more points in their past 10 games.
The Raiders have had a little trouble with Sarasota County teams in the past such as Bradenton Manatee. But if they can avoid the hostile environment becoming a major hindrance, they should move closer to a historic state title.
Andre’s pick: St. Thomas Aquinas 31, Venice 24.
Class 8A state semifinal – Miami High (11-1) at Delray Beach Atlantic (11-1): This turnaround season for Miami High became even more remarkable last week after the Stingarees’ comeback from a 22-0 deficit against Columbus.
And Miami High started drawing some of its most famous alums last week such as Andre Johnson watched the Stings advance to this round for the first time since 1992.
A win this week would clinch their first trip to the state finals since 1965.
To get it done, Miami High will have to take its furthest trip of the playoffs so far and face an Atlantic team that has already eliminated two Broward teams – Plantation and Western.
The Eagles’ defense has been solid, allowing 14 points or less throughout the season until they gave up a couple of late scores to Western last week.
But have they matched up against the overall team speed they will encounter when Miami High steps on the field this Friday?
This is a talented confident bunch leading the Stingarees, but they must get off to a good start and minimize errors in order to move closer to history.
Andre’s pick: Miami High 20, Atlantic 14.
Class 5A state semifinal – Immokalee (12-0) at American Heritage (11-0): The 25-game win streak and a potential fourth state title in five years for Heritage faces a major test from southwest Florida.
The Patriots just barely outlasted Gibbons in a classic triple-overtime win and must put that aside quickly and get ready for another formidable obstacle.
Immokalee brings with it a balanced offense that’s amassed 4,445 yards and scored 69 touchdowns. One of the key players in that offense is former Heritage running back Abraham Alce, who has run for 10 touchdowns this year and caught two more.
Andre’s pick: American Heritage 31, Immokalee 28.
Class 6A state semifinal – Naples (10-1) vs. Northwestern (10-2) at Traz Powell: The Bulls emerged as the last team standing from District 16-6A and now sit in the driver’s seat to extend that district’s streak of five consecutive seasons winning the Class 6A state title.
They just can’t keep letting leads almost slip away as it almost did again last week against Carol City.
Naples isn’t a pushover with a running game that is averaging 252.5 yards per game.
But doubt it’s a challenge the superb Bulls’ defense that slowed down prolific offenses like Central and Carol City twice each this season, can’t handle.
Andre’s pick: Northwestern 35, Naples 14.
NOTE: All games Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Dade - Last week: 3-1; Season: 216-41; Broward – Last week: 4-1; Season: 195-45.