High School Sports

Booker T.’s greatness to get ultimate test against St. Thomas Aquinas

Eric Walker passes as Booker T. Washington hosts Citra North Marion at Traz Powell Stadium in a preseason game Friday, Aug. 21, 2015.
Eric Walker passes as Booker T. Washington hosts Citra North Marion at Traz Powell Stadium in a preseason game Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The name Booker T. Washington and the word underdog haven’t been written in the same sentence much, if at all, over the past five years.

The Tornadoes have won three consecutive state championships, been to the state finals four years in a row, won a national title and finished as a national runner-up during that span.

They’ve also won 41 consecutive games entering this season.

And yet outside of the Overtown area, it’s hard to find many that believe the Tornadoes have a chance at victory Friday night when they play nationally-ranked St. Thomas Aquinas at 8 p.m. in a game that will be broadcast nationally by ESPN at Brian Piccolo Stadium on the Raiders’ campus.

“We were up there [at Aquinas] watching their game against Dillard [last week] and heard some of that, but we don’t let anything like that bother us,” Booker T. coach Earl Tillman said. “All the talk will only serve to motivate everyone. We just have to worry about ourselves and not what anyone else is saying.”

A mass exodus of players due to graduation and transfers have led some to question whether the Tornadoes belong in such a high profile game against St. Thomas, an eight-time state champion that will enter the game ranked No. 5 in the country by USA Today.

St. Thomas Aquinas underwent a coaching change in the offseason when former University School coach and alumnus Roger Harriott was hired following the departure of Rocco Casullo.

The big-name talent has increased on a squad with some of the country’s elite college recruits and players carrying on proud football legacies such as defensive end Nick Bosa and wide receivers Sam Bruce and Michael Irvin II.

Harriott’s message since opening practice to his players has been one of unity and handling their success with class and maturity.

That is something Tillman has always stood for as well in his 13 seasons at Booker T. Washington whether as an offensive line coach or running the program himself.

This past Monday and every subsequent Monday thereafter is “shirt and tie” day at the school where Tillman requires his players to dress formally for school.

Tillman was Booker T.’s head coach for three seasons after Tim “Ice” Harris departed for the University of Miami following the school’s first state title in 2007. He was appointed to the same position following the exit of Harris’ son, Tim, Jr., who became an assistant coach at FIU.

And like 2008, Tillman inherited a young Booker T. team that had lost a lot of recognizable talent from the previous season.

The amount of losses was larger this time around, however.

Only four starters came back, including the lone defensive star Dedrick Mackey. But as Booker T. demonstrated last week in a thrilling 28-27 comeback win over Citra North Marion in its preseason classic, the Tornadoes can still compete against some of the state’s best.

Although Booker T. might still be working out their quarterback situation (last week it rotated between senior Eric Walker and freshman Daniel Richardson), it still has a potent passing game led by receivers Raymond Flanders and Darrius Scott.

Mackey and a talented group of sophomores led by defensive end Jaquan Beaver should make the defense solid again this season.

But the question remains, can Booker T., which will also play nationally-ranked rival Miami Central later in the season, still compete on a national level?

High school football fans around the country will get a good indication Friday night.

“Booker T. is a formidable opponent with talented players regardless of popular opinion,” Harriott said. “This is a highly anticipated game that’s accumulated substantial attention, so my coaches and I have focused on tempering players’ emotions and disregarding the inevitable distractions.”