December 17, 2010

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It was the final audition for a potential national championship.

It was the final game of a remarkable four-year run for nine Division-I bound seniors.

But more than anything else, the ability of No. 3 Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas to dominate No. 49 Tampa (Fla.) Plant in the Class 5A championship, 29-7, was evidence of just how good this perennial power is.

Aquinas overcame adversity - it actually trailed for the first-time all season, 7-6.

It showed offensive firepower - scoring two late first half touchdowns to take a commanding 20-7 lead into the locker room.

And it showed a dominant defense - holding Plant's star running back, James Wilder Jr., to just 72 yards.

Whether St. Thomas Aquinas showed enough to unseat Batesville (Miss.) South Panola atop the RivalsHigh Top 100 remains to be seen. The final poll will be revealed on Monday.

"This was a very special win," Aquinas head coach George Smith told reporters following the game. "We beat the defending state champs."

The victory was the team's 57th in its last 59 games and produced its third state titel in four years. But it wasn't easy early.

Aquinas got two big plays on its first two possessions - a 41-yard reception by Phillip Dorsett on the first drive and a 62-yard run by Fred Coppet on the second - but it couldn't get into the end zone. Instead it settled for two field goals and a 6-0 lead.

When Plant got going in the second quarter, using a 9-yard by Wilder to cap an 85-yard drive, it looked like a title match befitting two Florida powers.

Then Aquinas took over.

Quarterback Jacob Ruddock threw a TD pass to Rashad Greene a 13-7 lead. Then, when it initially appeared it was going to run out the final minute of the half after it was pinned inside its own 10-yard-line on a punt, Coppet broke off a back-breaking 93-yard TD run.

"We didn't get set on the play," Plant coach Robert Wiener told television reporters at halftime. "This is a team that is too good for us not to be ready to go against."

The play was a momentum shifter that Plant could not overcome.

The second half was quickly played as the two teams traded punts and shifted field position.

Aquinas used a 17-play, 6-minute drive, to run the clock and break the spirit of Plant to build a 23-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Then the defense went to work. It intercepted Plant quarterback Phillip Ely twice - once by Marcus Roberson in the end zone and the other by Hunter Coddington - to all but seal the win.

Ely, the Alabama commit, was questionable to play with a back injury that kept him out of the semifinal win over Lakeland. He ended his career with a 13-of-35 for 167 yards and the two interceptions.

The Raiders added a 74-yard catch and run from Rudock to Greene to stretch the lead to the final of 29-7.

Smith, however, focused on finishing the mission this team has been on since its shocking 28-20 loss in last season's semifinal.

"Being able to go 15-0 is very special after last year's disappointing loss to Manatee," Smith said.

It was a loss that prevented an Aquinas-Plant matchup a year ago and cost Aquinas a shot at back-to-back national championships.

The win Friday evening keeps the team in contention to be the top team in Florida - No. 6 Orlando (Fla.) Dr. Phillips plays No. 21 Miami (Fla.) Central in the Class 6A championship game Saturday night.

It also keeps Aquinas in contention for another national title. And the way it won seems to indicate it may have a shot at a few more down the road.

The most impressive player in the evening was not among the nine seniors that Aquinas will send to Division I football - it was an up-and-coming sophomore.

Coppet had just nine carries, but they were good for 168 yards. His playmaking ability took the pressure off Rudock and the passing game.

Rudock was 13-of-23 for 283 yards and two touchdowns, but credited his teammates.

"The offensive line did a great job," Rudock said. "The running backs and everyone did their jobs. We had great coaching."

That's why St. Thomas Aquinas is a perennial power.

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