While his players celebrated nearby, Deerfield Beach coach Allen Jackson got on one knee on the field, put his head down and closed his eyes.
When Jackson came up after nearly a minute, he had tears of joy.
The Deerfield Beach alumnus, who came back to coach his alma mater three seasons ago following a 2-9 season, had just directed his team to a 22-7 victory against national powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas on Friday night that completed a perfect regular season.
The Bucks (10-0) used a 16-point fourth quarter to rally to beat the Raiders (8-2), who entered the game ranked 20th nationally by MaxPreps.
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“These kids have been wonderful, and I told the kids not to stop at 9-0, believe you can be 10-0,” Jackson said. “I’ve always wanted this job, and I knew if we could keep this team together for three years something special would happen. I’m just really happy.”
Led by senior Brandon Powell’s 133 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 17 carries and a stellar effort by the defense, the Bucks earned their first victory over St. Thomas since 2007.
Aquinas had won the past five meetings against the Bucks, also winning four state championships (including one that season) and two national titles since.
Deerfield Beach will play at home again next Friday to open the playoffs against Flanagan (9-1), a team making its playoff debut, in a Region 3-8A quarterfinal. St. Thomas will host Miami Springs the same night in the Region 4-7A quarterfinals.
“Everybody doubted us and thought we didn’t have a chance in this game,” Powell said. “It helps a lot to practice on this field and that we’re used to it. We all wanted to go out this season with a win over Aquinas.”
Poor field conditions even before heavy rain fell in the first half disrupted both offenses in the second quarter.
Deerfield Beach’s defense, however, was the biggest deterrent to St. Thomas’ high-powered offense. The Bucks allowed only four first downs and intercepted Aquinas quarterback Wade Freebeck twice and limited him to 5-of-19 passing for only 89 yards.
Artez Levine’s interception in the first half prevented Aquinas from adding to a 7-0 lead one drive after Mardre London scored on a 17-yard run.
Michael Greene’s 43-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the game in the fourth quarter.
The key play came from the Bucks’ defensive front, led by junior Jason Strowbridge, early in the fourth quarter.
Aquinas’ defense had just stopped Deerfield on downs at the 1-yard line. On the ensuing play, Strowbridge helped stop London in the end zone for a safety that gave Deerfield Beach an 8-7 lead.
Moments later, Powell broke loose on a sweep down the sideline for a 50-yard touchdown.
Powell also broke free for a 30-yard touchdown run late in the first half when the heaviest rains were falling to cut Aquinas’ lead to 7-6. Deerfield failed to convert the extra point as its holder mishandled the snap, but Powell said the score gave the team confidence.
“At halftime, everybody had confidence we could do this,” Powell said. “We all came out playing hard, making their blocks and running hard, and we got the victory.”