Bradenton Manatee arrived at Brian Piccolo Stadium on Friday night with four Football Bowl Subdivision prospects on the defensive line, a 25-game winning streak and billing as the nation’s top team.
For a week, St. Thomas Aquinas heard about how dominant and unbeatable its opponent had been, comments usually reserved instead for the six-time state championship program of the Raiders.
Following a 35-18 victory over the Hurricanes in the Class 7A state semifinals, it’s the Raiders (12-2) who will face Tallahassee Lincoln at 7 p.m. Friday night for the state title.
“To be honest with you, they were tired of hearing about the Manatee defensive line,” St. Thomas coach Rocco Casullo said. “They really thought they could control the line of scrimmage, and they did that.”
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Senior running back Frederick Coppet told reporters after the game that the offensive line set the tone for the team.
Coppet and junior Mardre London combined for 254 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Senior quarterback John O’Korn passed for 184 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions, and he also added a rushing score.
“We can’t win without us, basically,” senior offensive lineman Austin Bland said. “It’s up to us five. I think it feels good. We win the game because of us. We watched film the whole week, and we knew what [Manatee] was going to do. We used our technique and we just believed and we beat them.”
Technique is what offensive line coach Jay Connolly has drilled into his offensive linemen since the beginning of the season.
“That’s what I would say makes us good,” said Bland, whose group averages 6-3 and 277 pounds. “Every practice since freshman year [we’ve heard it], and now we’re down to our last week of practice of high school football.”
Casullo agreed, saying that all the coaches preach repetition, which ultimately leads a team closer to perfecting its execution.
“Connolly gets the most out of everybody, and he’s such a good teacher,” Casullo said. “His philosophies and his technique — we’re all so technique oriented — it’s got to be perfect. It’s execution and the same thing all over again.”
All three seniors on the offensive line, who will play football in college, believe communication makes the unit stronger. The two other starters — juniors Ryan Cozier and Nicholas Linder — had brothers who played for the program.
Because Cozier and Linder grew up with Aquinas, it became easy to create the same level of trust. Senior offensive linemen Zachary Provin and Kyle Schafenacker have been on the left side of the line since their sophomore years.
“Having that continuity, not a lot of high school programs can have that continuity like we do, and that’s a huge advantage for us,” Provin said.
Freshman Nick Bosa, who plays alongside his older brother, Joey, on the defensive line, believes the two units improve daily thanks to drills that pit them against each other at practice. The Raiders’ front seven held a Manatee offense averaging more than 50 points per game to just 18 in the upset.
“Dominate the line of scrimmage, and if we do that we’ll win the game,” Nick said. “The running backs get all the credit, but our offensive line threw the top-ranked [defensive] tackle in the nation around and our D-line dominated the line of scrimmage.”
Said Provin: “We go against the best d-line in the country every day. When you look at it like that, [Friday] was just another day. It’s a real learning experience every day.”
Casullo and Coppet each gave speeches to the team on its Saturday weightlifting day after a 27-24 loss to Miramar on Oct. 5 that put the team’s record at 3-2. Had three plays gone differently, they emphasized, Aquinas easily could have been 5-0.
During the offseason, Casullo pushes for his team to build on its character and integrity. He puts something new on the board every week for the “guys to feed off of.”
“We’re just going to give it our all this last week and hopefully come out with a state championship,” Schafenacker said.