Nearly a year to the day after experiencing a painful 27-20 loss and seeing an opportunity of a fourth straight state championship go down the drain, the St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders righted a wrong on Friday night.
That after they delivered a convincing and dominating 38-18 victory over Venice in a Class 7A state semifinal at Brian Piccolo Stadium. The same Venice team that had beaten them last year over in Venice.
Aquinas (13-1) advances to its fourth state title game in the last five years and will take on an old familiar rival, Lakeland, next Friday (Dec. 7) at 8 p.m. at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. The Raiders and Dreadnaughts met three straight times from 2004-06 (with Lakeland winning all three) and again in 2008 when St. Thomas delivered a lopsided win.
“It wasn’t necessarily who we beat tonight but more of a redemption story for us as a team in general,” said St. Thomas head coach Roger Harriott. “We had an objective at the beginning of the year and that was to give our best effort on every play every week and the objective this week was to continue to do that and stay focused and the kids went out there and did that.”
They did it thanks to a huge night from running back Daniel Carter. On the Raiders’ first play of their second drive, Carter busted through a wide open hole in the right side and bolted 74 yards for a touchdown and early 7-0 lead.
Carter was just getting warmed up and when the evening was over, he had racked up 194 yards on 22 carries. And just for good measure, turned a nice catch-and-run swing pass from quarterback Curt Casteel into a 32-yard touchdown pass with six minutes left to put his team up 38-6 and allowed the early celebrating on the St. Thomas sideline to begin.
“It’s just a great feeling right now knowing all of the hard work we put in to get back to this point after coming up short last year,” said Carter, who will announce on Twitter Saturday whether Pittsburgh or Kansas State will be getting his football talents. “I can not take the credit myself, it’s all on my teammates. We did this as a team, no one individual did it. We were very focused all week in practice, we didn’t forget what happened last year but had to just focus on the task at hand and not necessarily who we were playing. One more left.”
After Carter got his team the early lead, St. Thomas followed with a three-and-out by the defense and quick 58-yard, five-play drive as Casteel found The’Andres Freeman open over the middle for a 17-yard touchdown to make it 14-0.
The Raiders offense then got sloppy as a lost fumble gave Venice a short field leading to a field goal and that was followed by a Casteel interception at midfield.
The Indians (12-2) then drove down inside the Aquinas 10 before the defense stiffened, force a field goal attempt and then blocked it.
The Raiders then took over 5:08 before halftime and put together a nine-play 80-yard drive culminated by a Carter two-yard score 1:15 before the half to put St. Thomas in command up 21-3.
Leading 21-6, they then put things away with a 9-play, 51 yard drive with Jaedon Henry scoring from 4 yards out with nine seconds left in the third quarter to make it 28-6. Riyad Wilmot then recovered a Venice fumble which led to a Logan Lupo field goal, which was eventually followed by Carter’s touchdown reception.
Venice then benefited from a little bit of sloppy play by the Raiders, who were plagued all night by penalties (16 for 157 yards) and scored a pair of late touchdowns that only made a lopsided game look a little closer.
“It was very personal, last year was very tough and we took it hard and did want to experience that feeling again,” said linebacker Derek Wingo who was in on a dozen tackles. “We’re looking forward to getting one more.”
Said Harriott: “Now we’re able to write a great story for another week. We really focused on containing our emotions and playing efficient sound, hard football in between the whistles and looking forward to representing Broward County next week in the state championship game.”