Broward High Schools

St. Thomas Aquinas looking for payback against Don Bosco Prep

Over the last six years St. Thomas Aquinas' football team has racked up wins over nationally-ranked powerhouses like a tourist who collects refrigerator magnets.

The Raiders, seven-time state champions and two-time national champions, have been to Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, Columbus, Ohio and Hoover, Ala. and returned home with wins over Elder, Skyline, John Curtis, Upper Arlington and Prattville.

They’ve stayed home and beaten the likes of Camden County, Ga., Byrnes, S.C. and De La Salle of Concord, Calif.

This latest installment of meet the big timer feels a little different. Saturday afternoon’s 4 p.m. kickoff is not only being played at Army's historic Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y., but the opponent -- Don Bosco Prep -- is also the only school outside the state who can claim victory over Aquinas.

The Raiders -- 8-0 against everyone else outside the Sunshine State since 2008 – dropped a 20-10 decision to the Ironmen back in 2012 at home. Aquinas went on to win the state title later that season, but players and coaches were upset they gave that game away with three big miscues on special teams. And the mistakes immediately prompted change on the coaching staff.

After that loss, coach Rocco Cassulo brought back Tim Conrad to be special teams coordinator. And the Raiders' haven't been the same on special teams since.

"What we learned in that game was that special teams changes momentum," said senior cornerback James Oliphant, who along with receiver Jawuan Harris blocked a punt in the Raiders' impressive season-opening 38-7 dismantling of Plantation American Heritage two weeks ago.

"We had over 300 yards offense and held them to 125 yards and they still beat us," Oliphant continued. “You can't just win it on offense and defense. That's what we learned that night."

Against Don Bosco, the Raiders had two punts blocked and lost another fumble inside their five-yard line on a punt return. The woes led directly to 14 points. That Ironmen team finished an unimpressive 8-3.

This year's Don Bosco team, Cassulo said, is much better. Ranked 16th nationally, the Ironmen resemble teams from their better days when they won 14 state championships and two national titles (2009, 2011). Defensively, they're led up front by 6-9, 300-pound defensive tackle and Ohio State commitment Kevin Feder. Quarterback Wes McKoy and Malik Bakker, meanwhile, lead the offense.

"They're definitely better all around," Cassulo said. "They've got a very athletic quarterback, very physical offensive line and then a very solid defense.

"They had two scrimmages and only played a half in their opener before it was canceled because of lightning. We really don't have an idea of what they're going to do."

Winning on special teams is going to be of the upmost importance, Casullo said.

The Raiders have put a priority on it since Conrad arrived. After stretching, Aquinas spends 45 minutes working on special teams before breaking off into offense and defense.

Since their bad day against Don Bosco, the only big miscue Aquinas has had on special teams, players said, was a kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening play of the 2012 state championship game against Tallahassee Lincoln. Aquinas came back to win that game.

"It's a big part of our game," said Harris, who didn't play against Don Bosco two years ago, but now serves several roles on special teams including the middle blocker in the stack on punts.

"On special teams you've got to stick to your responsibility and have to trust that everybody on special teams will do theirs."

Said OIiphant: "You can't look at special teams as just a way to get three points. Without special teams we would lose the game. That's the mentality Coach Conrad has put into our heads."