St. Thomas Aquinas caps 'special' season with national title

A dominating 56-7 victory over Lakeland (Fla.) High School Friday night earned St. Thomas Aquinas High School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) its second consecutive state football championship and its first ESPN RISE mythical national championship. But for longtime coach George Smith, the fate of his team's season began the final weekend in August more than 900 miles away.

"I really, firmly believe that the key to our season was going up and playing in the [Kirk] Herbstreit [Varsity Football Series]," Smith said one day after the Raiders won their fifth state championship in the Class 5A state title game at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

Smith was referring to St. Thomas Aquinas' 44-hour round-trip journey to Cincinnati, where the Raiders played their season opener against another traditional high school football powerhouse, Elder High School.

In that game, the Raiders trailed Elder 10-0 in the first quarter but outscored the Cincinnati school 21-0 in the second quarter en route to a 35-24 victory at Paul Brown Stadium.

"To be able to withstand a 10-0 deficit and be able to come back and win like we did, that was a great bonding issue," Smith said.

It was the first time many of Aquinas' players had traveled so far from home, Smith said. The trip brought them closer together and forced them to depend on one another.

"I mean, I really think that was the key to our season," Smith said. "I really think that started us off in such a positive, positive, positive scenario. It was like a jump start with a jet engine on it almost."

It culminated with a win against a team that had stood in St. Thomas Aquinas' way so many times before. The Raiders had never beaten Lakeland in a state championship game, losing each of their four previous meetings in 1996 (40-6), 2004 (31-7), 2005 (39-10) and 2006 (45-42 in double overtime).

Smith said he didn't consider the victory a proverbial monkey off his back, although he acknowledged that beating Lakeland has been no easy feat.

"We experienced that three years in a row when they won the damn state championship at our expense," Smith said.

St. Thomas Aquinas did most of its damage early, taking a 28-0 first-quarter lead. A play-action pass on the Raiders' second play of the game produced a 53-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead. The Raiders scored again on a 45-yard touchdown run, linebacker Conor O'Neill's 20-yard interception return and quarterback Ryan Becker's 1-yard touchdown scamper.

"We had a quick start," Smith said. "I don't know if they expected that, and once it got going, especially with the interception by Conor on the tipped pass, it kind of put them in a situation where I don't think they could have recovered. I think they were used to running the ball and doing the things they wanted to do, but it got out of hand real quick for them."

A bad snap and fumble by Lakeland late in the second quarter set up the Raiders in Lakeland territory, and a 13-yard touchdown reception by Dwayne Difton gave St. Thomas Aquinas a 35-0 lead going into the locker room.

St. Thomas Aquinas had 213 passing yards in the first half to Lakeland's 85 passing yards. The Dreadnaughts also were 0-for-9 on third-down conversions in the first half.

"They're in no way used to that happening to them," Smith said.

The fourth quarter was played under a running clock, thanks to a Florida High School Athletic Association rule for teams that have a lead of 35 or more points. The exception was for TV timeouts.

Becker attempted only 11 passes all game but completed eight of them for 100 yards and three touchdowns.

The 2008 team became the first to win back-to-back state titles in school history, and a three-peat seems possible with several key players returning in 2009.

"We've got some pretty good underclassmen at skill positions, and we return a couple key guys on the offense and defensive front," Smith said. "I'm an old guy, and I've been here a long time. You just don't know. You don't know what the chemistry of the team is."

The victory also capped St. Thomas Aquinas' first 15-0 season, extending its win streak to 24 games and cementing its status as the top team in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 national rankings for the 2008 season.

"That's very special," Smith said.

Peter Burke is a freelance writer in Florida.