It didn’t matter how much St. Thomas Aquinas’ starting lineup changed from opening night to Friday night at the Citrus Bowl.
The Raiders have found a way to consistently reserve their annual spot at the top of the pecking order.
A dominant performance nearly from start to finish ended with a 45-10 Aquinas rout over first-time state finalist Viera in the Class 7A state championship game in front of a crowd of 5,390.
“What a great story,” said junior Trevon Grimes, who had three catches for 70 yards, including a spectacular one-handed grab in the first half. “We overcame a lot of adversity with all the injured players we had being out for the season, and a lot of people doubted us. But as a family, the St. Thomas Raiders, we never doubted that we would come out on top at the end.”
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Aquinas (13-1) won its ninth state title overall, putting it within two championships of Jacksonville Bolles, which has the most statewide with 11. The rest of Broward County has 11 state titles combined. Flanagan can add to that total if it wins the Class 8A championship on Saturday.
The Raiders won their sixth consecutive state championship game, which matched the state record held by Lakeland. That streak began in 2007 — a span of nine seasons. The rout of Viera (10-5) was the second-largest margin of victory for Aquinas at state, second only to its 56-7 win over Lakeland in 2008.
Aquinas coach Roger Harriott, a running back on Aquinas’ first state title team in 1992, achieved a milestone in his first season as head coach at his alma mater by becoming the first coach in Broward County history to win state titles at two different schools.
Harriott, who led University School of Nova Southeastern to a state title in 2012, became the eighth coach to achieve the feat statewide — a list that includes Miami Central coach Roland Smith (Central and Northwestern) and current Miami Southridge coach Billy Rolle (Miami Killian and Northwestern).
“I’m just extremely excited for the St. Thomas community,” Harriott said. “This is a great victory for our extraordinary student body. This is an epic story with an epic exclamation point.”
The Raiders capped an injury-riddled campaign in which 14 key players sustained injuries — including 13 whose seasons were ended — with its second title in a row, achieving back-to-back state titles for the second time in school history.
“We had to be the big brothers for this team,” said defensive end Colin Nace, who led Aquinas’ defense with eight tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. “We set the standard for the rest of the teams to come after us and in the best way possible by overcoming what we did.”
Nace and Kivon Bennett, who also had 1 1/2 sacks Friday, were major contributors again after being relied upon more and more every week after the Raiders’ defense lost high-caliber players such as All-American defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Drew White.
Aquinas’ defense totaled five sacks and had three interceptions. Alvin Davis and Asante Samuel each had one, and Adetutu Daranijo took it a step further with a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave Aquinas a 42-3 lead and started a running clock with 6:58 left in the third quarter.
The Raiders’ offense, which lost running back Devonta’e Henry Cole to injury at the start of the season and was without starting quarterback Jake Allen for four games late in the season, played like a well-oiled machine from the second drive of the game onward.
“We had a great game plan, and we knew we were more physical in the trenches,” Aquinas senior center Louie Berkowitz said. “Jake Allen and our receivers and our running backs did a great job winning this game for us.”
The duo of seniors Jaxson Kincaide and James Charles became the perfect pair in Aquinas’ backfield. On Friday, Kincaide ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, and Charles added 71 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
Allen, who returned from a shoulder injury in the regional semifinal round, completed 11 of 14 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
Senior wide receiver Sam Bruce caught three passes on Aquinas’ first scoring drive, including a 30-yard touchdown that got things started. He finished with five receptions for 61 yards.
“[Being out] was hard at first for sure,” Allen said. “Then God placed his hand on me and allowed me to come back. It really put things in perspective that I need to be on the field and it felt so great to come back and help lead this team to a title.”
STA - Bruce 30 pass from Allen (McCourt kick)
STA - Kincaide 2 run (McCourt kick)
STA - Charles 3 run (McCourt kick)
STA - Kincaide 3 run (McCourt kick)
V - FG Schaneville 24
STA - Charles 1 run (McCourt kick)
STA - Daranijo 12 interception return (McCourt kick)
STA - FG McCourt 30
V - Folston 1 run (Schaneville kick)
Rushing (att-yds) -- STA: Llewellyn 4-(-12), Allen 1-(-4), Jenkins 1-6, Harley 1-6, Bruce 1-7, Irvin 1-7, Charles 12-71, Kincaide 12-119. V: Kingston 11-(-16), Cabrera 4-(-3), Deplancke 2-2, Merritt 3-7, Nixon 1-11, Folston 2-15, Boyd 9-30.
Passing (comp-att-int, yds)-- STA: Harley 1-1-0, 38, Allen 11-14-2, 152. V: Boyd 1-1-0, 3, Kingston 17-29-3, 117.
Receiving (rec-yds-TD) -- STA: Thieman 1-26, Irvin 3-33, Bruce 5-61, Grimes 3-70. V: Jakson 1-4, Boyd 2-5, Richard 3-12, Nixon 5-19, Deplancke 1-21, Cabrera 6-59.