St. Thomas Aquinas downs Prattville 34-31

Hoover, Ala. -- Believe it or not, one of the country’s top high school football programs had many unanswered questions going into their 2011 campaign. For new St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) head coach Rocco Casullo, he found some answers against a talented Prattville (Prattville, Ala.) team in the Raiders’ 34-31 over the Rams.

Casullo knew his Raiders would be talented up front defensively with players like Jelani Hamilton, Bryan Cox, Jr., junior Joey Bosa and sophomore Anthony Moten. But on the other side of the ball, St. Thomas Aquinas had three fresh faces on the offensive line, two new starters at receiver and a brand new signal-caller. Junior running back Fred Coppet helped ignite the Raider offense both in the running and passing game. In the end, they just had one more big play than the Lions, as the game could have gone either way.

On fourth and five with 1:17 remaining in the game and St. Thomas Aquinas holding a three-point lead. Raider defensive end standout and Miami commitment Hamilton sacked Prattville quarterback, and Alabama pledge, Justin Thomas to preserve the win.

It was a game of many big plays. First, there was Prattville defensive back and Wake Forest commitment LaRonji Vason blocking a Raider punt that lead to Prattville’s first touchdown and a 7-0 Lion lead in the first quarter. In the second quarter, St. Thomas Aquinas quarterback Max Lescano hit receiver Gavin Sinclair on a short screen pass that he turned into a 74-yard score to make it a 20-14 Raider lead. On the first possession of the second half, St. Thomas Aquinas defensive end Bryan Cox intercepted Thomas and returned the ball to the Lions one-yard line.

Prattville was led by Thomas, who at times showed why he’s one of the country’s finest athletes; with rare speed and quickness and the toughness to navigate the open field.

What it means for next week's first POWERADE FAB 50 for the regular season: Powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas opened up the season as the No. 4 ranked team in the country and they keep their hopes alive for a national championship with a big win over Prattville. The Raiders were tested and tested hard against a very good Lion team. St. Thomas Aquinas will get a shot in a few weeks to further enhance their 2011 resume when they host No. 2 ranked Concord (Calif.) De La Salle in south Florida. With the Raiders being young and breaking in many new starters they should be a team that gets better as the season progresses, so their game against De La Salle looms large. The Lions came in as the No. 13 ranked team in the country. Despite the three-point loss to St. Thomas Aquinas, don’t expect Prattville to dip too much in the rankings; this is a veteran and very talented team that will challenge Hoover as the top program from the state of Alabama.

Rising Star of the Night: St. Thomas Aquinas is loaded with talent at just about every position. But their star of this game was Coppet. He had a 39-yard run in the first quarter and a 49-yard reception in the second. He gives the Raiders explosiveness and is a terrific player on the perimeter and in the passing game. He will not have to carry the load of the Raider run game because they also have Dami Ayoola, a terrific inside runner. Coppett and Ayoola give the St. Thomas Aquinas a super one-two punch offensively.

More Stars: Prattville has an underrated offensive weapon in wide receiver Jeremiah Gardner. He’s a speedy wide receiver that had a few nice catch and runs for the Lions offense, showing excellent speed, quickness and big play capability. He is also terrific in the punt return duties. Defensive end Jay Minor, who has committed to South Alabama, is an active presence on the front. He’s quick off the edge and is an active pass rusher. For St. Thomas Aquinas, Hamilton made his big plays when his team needed them the most - this, despite being slowed by a knee injury. He showed why he’s one of the most coveted big men in the nation. He has some help on the front, as one impressive performer was Bosa, a junior defensive end and tackle with offers already from Alabama and Florida State. The unsung hero for the Raiders was tight end Nico Shepherd. He had four receptions, including their first score, as well as a few crucial grabs late in the game.

St. Thomas Aquinas coach Rocco Casullo: “We had some many questions coming into this game, this season. We have a bunch of new players; three new offensive linemen, receivers, quarterback and in the secondary. We just wanted to get to the fourth quarter and hope we were close because we knew we were well conditioned coming in. We have worked very hard. This is a huge win for us, especially considering how much youth we have.”

Prattville coach Jamey DuBose: “The game could have gone either way and I think those were two evenly matched teams. I’m excited we had an opportunity to play St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s a good football team that is well coached and very disciplined. They made the plays when they had to. We made some mental mistakes and had some blown assignments. We have to overcome this loss and get ready to play next week.”

Up Next: St. Thomas Aquinas (1-0) plays at Weston (Fla.) Cypress Bay on September 9th. Prattville (0-1) hosts Stanhope Elmore next Friday.

Jamie Newberg is the southeast regional coordinator for ESPN.com