It was a strange sight indeed.
A St. Thomas Aquinas football program clearly not used to being “second banana,” a team that had won seven consecutive championship games dating back to 2007, was forced to play that role on Friday night after the Raiders, in a very un-St. Thomas-like performance riddled with mistakes and lost opportunities, had to settle for runner-up medals following a mildly surprising 33-20 loss to Lakeland in the Class 7A state championship game at Camping World Stadium.
An opportunity for state championship No. 11, which would have tied Jacksonville Bolles for the state record, was down the drain. It was the team’s first loss in a title game since the epic 48-45 four-overtime battle to the very same Lakeland team 12 years ago at Pro Player Stadium in Miami.
“It was a combination, Lakeland came out strong and we simply did not play well and match that,” said Aquinas head coach Roger Harriott. “It was one thing after another and our guys had to overcome some adverse moments and that didn’t happen.”
Whether it was missed field goals, crucial untimely penalties, fumbles, dropped passes, you name it, the Raiders had an arsenal full of it Friday night and ultimately paid the price as a fired up and determined Lakeland team outplayed them all night. The Dreadnaughts, who ran the table finishing a perfect 15-0, won their seventh state title and first since that 2006 win over St. Thomas.
“When you turn the ball over, have penalties, dropped balls, missed scoring opportunities, all of that stuff eventually it all adds up and comes back to haunt you and that’s what happened out there,” Harriott said. “We just didn’t play sound St. Thomas football tonight.”
“Defensively we just didn’t come out as aggressive as we usually come out and things just didn’t go our way tonight,” said defensive back and Ohio State commit Jordan Battle. “We knew before the game that this would be a trenches game and we just didn’t win that battle. It’s just a pretty empty feeling right now but I’m proud of all my boys, I love everybody and even though I’m moving on, they’ll be back.”
A first half filled with missed opportunities proved to be a precursor of things to come. The Raiders had three golden opportunities to take the lead in the game and failed to do so.
Thanks to a short punt, their first possession started at the Lakeland 40. But a false start on third-and-three followed by a holding penalty ended that chance.
A long drive that started at their 31 and bridged the end of the first quarter and start of the second reached the Dreadnaught one. With third-and-goal, another crucial false start pushed it back to the 6, forcing a pass which quarterback Curt Casteel was sacked. Logan Lupo then hooked a 30-yard field goal attempt.
On the very first play after that, Lakeland running back Demarkus Bowman, who rushed for over 2,000 yards this season, showed everyone why when he bolted through a big hole in the right side and outraced everybody to the end zone for an 80-yard score and 7-0 lead.
When Raiders running back Daniel Carter answered Bowman’s long run with a long one of his own on the next possession, a 53-yarder to the Lakeland 24, it looked like St. Thomas would answer the score.
But three plays netted only 6 yards before Lupo came in and hooked another field goal attempt, this one from 35 yards out.
With 7:22 left, the Dreadnaughts then went on a marathon 15-play, 59-yard drive to eat up all but the final 15 seconds of the half with Jace Hohenthaner nailing a 38-yard field goal to put Lakeland ahead 10-0 at the break.
The third quarter exploded into a volleyball match. The Raiders (13-2) finally got momentum early. Dontae Lunan stripped Bowman of the ball and Anthony Solomon recovered the fumble at the Lakeland 32. St. Thomas was in the end zone two plays later when Casteel found a crease up the middle and scrambled for a 15-yard score.
But that momentum disappeared in a matter of seconds when Fenley Graham took the ensuing kickoff and rocketed 99 yards for a score and it was back to a 10-point deficit for the Raiders.
St. Thomas had a quick answer for that when the Raiders drove 60 yards in just five plays, a 44 yard pass from Casteel to Marcus Rosemy setting up Carter for a five yard score to make it 17-14.
But back came the Dreadnaughts on a play the epitomized the evening for the Raiders. That when somehow, some way, on 3rd and 25, Chris Howard managed to get wide open behind the entire Raiders secondary for a 68 yard pass play which led to a 25-yard field goal and 20-14 Lakeland lead.
On their very next play, the stumbling mistake-prone Raiders did it again when Casteel and Carter missed connections on a handoff and Lakeland recovered at the 12. Four plays later, Jaharie Martin scored from a yard out and despite a blown extra point, Lakeland was up 26-14 with 4:16 left in the third.
After all of that, the Raiders (13-2) were still in it early in the fourth quarter as they reached the Lakeland 10. And it looked like a Harriott gamble on fourth-and-10 at the Lakeland 12 would pay off when Carter was wide open in the left flat with a row of blockers on a perfectly set up screen pass. But Carter dropped the ball.
Lakeland then went on a long drive to take a 33-14 lead with 5:01 left to slam the door.
“I don’t know, I just don’t know,” said Carter, a Pittsburgh commit, shaking his head from side to side. I guess just a learning lesson for us. We just weren’t efficient tonight and paid the price for it.”