St. Thomas Aquinas will not win a national championship this year.
The Raiders made sure Bradenton Manatee wouldn’t either.
Aquinas, playing in front of a raucous home crowd, stunned a Manatee team that was the top-ranked high school team in numerous national polls, pulling off a 35-18 victory.
The Raiders, now 12-2, will likely enter some national polls based on their national schedule — especially if Aquinas wins its seventh state title next week.
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Aquinas will play Tallahassee Lincoln for the Class 7A crown next Friday at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The Raiders have won nine in a row since losing at Miramar Oct. 5.
“This feels great because we were the underdogs,” said running back Fred Coppet, who scored Aquinas’ first touchdown and ran for 131 yards in the win.
“We’re not used to that. But we showed everyone we could play No. 1 football. We didn’t care what their ranking was. We knew we were going to play our best regardless.”
Aquinas and Manatee have created a nice rivalry over the years despite the three-hour difference across the state.
The Raiders are now 4-1 in postseason games against Manatee — although the one loss to the Hurricanes likely cost Aquinas a national title.
On Friday, it was Aquinas returning the favor.
“I’m at a loss for words,” said coach Rocco Casullo, who took over the storied Aquinas program from George Smith in 2011. “This was just unbelievable. Offense, defense, special teams — we won in all phases. I’m very proud of these guys.”
The combo of quarterback John O’Korn’s arm (and legs) along with Coppet’s hard-running style kept the Manatee (13-1) defense off-balance for much of the night.
Manatee marched down field on its opening drive but had to settle for a 35-yard field goal.
The Hurricanes, despite their lofty ranking, would never lead again.
Aquinas opened its first offensive series with Coppet going up the middle for 17 yards — after dragging a pile of defenders for the final 5 yards. Did that set the tone for Aquinas?
“No, our offensive line set the tone,” Coppet said. “They were amazing tonight. They have to get all the credit, all the praise.”
The Raiders kept moving the ball, with O’Korn completing a pair of passes and Coppet running for 37 yards — including a 7-yard burst for the Raiders’ initial touchdown with 3:13 left in the first.
Aquinas’ defense had been strong throughout the postseason save for parts of last week’s win against Boyd Anderson. On Friday, the Raiders’ defense was back, as it held the Hurricanes to three points in the opening half.
Manatee had a chance to pick up some points in the second quarter after O’Korn fumbled the ball at the Manatee 44 with Blake Keller rumbling 36 yards to the 20.
Manatee picked up 9 yards on its first run to the 11, but consecutive false start penalties moved it back. The Hurricanes couldn’t do anything with the ball after that and missed a 38-yard kick wide.
Aquinas, however, countered with another long drive as O’Korn made up for his miscue. The Raiders moved 80 yards in 10 plays, making it 14-3 when O’Korn faked the handoff to Coppet and snuck in from the 3.
The Raiders were just as dominant in the second half, controlling the line of scrimmage and basically doing anything they wanted offensively.
Aquinas made it 21-3 when Dion Collier hauled in a 38-yard pass from O’Korn. Manatee closed to within 11 points but that was as close as it got until late in the night.
The Raiders closed things out with a pair of touchdown runs from junior Madre London to seal another trip to the final.
“Everyone counted us out when we were 3-2, but we decided to turn things around,” O’Korn said. “This was a team win. Everyone pitched in. And how about our defense? They hadn’t scored fewer than 40 points a game and we held them to 18. They came up huge.”