August 27, 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas topples No. 1 Prattville

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Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

HOOVER, Ala. - Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas has as much tradition and history as just about any perennial high school football power. So don't think for a second that traveling across state lines to play the No. 1 team in the country on national television intimidated this program.

But a history that includes multiple national championships was hardly the reason for its 34-31 victory over Prattville (Ala.) High Saturday afternoon in Hoover, Ala.

In fact, it may be more appropriate to trace this victory to three first-timers.

There was quarterback Max Lescano, making his first start behind center, leading the offense.

There was head coach Rocco Casullo, calling the shots for the first time since being elevated to the top job to replace the school's legendary coach, George Smith.

And then there was Bryan Cox, Jr. - yes, the son of that Bryan Cox - playing his first game for the school after transferring to the South Florida region before his senior year because his old man was hired as a coach by the Dolphins.

Cox, in fact, made the play of the game, picking off a screen pass and rambling 63 yards to the 1-yard line midway through the third quarter.

One play later, Lescano went in on a quarterback sneak to give Aquinas a 34-21 lead.

One quarter later, Casullo had his first victory as a head coach.

"If feels good," Casullo said. "We have been working since February for this. It is a big win for me and an even bigger win for St. Thomas Aquinas football."

And it's one that will reshuffle the RivalsHigh Top 100 rankings.

Prattville obviously will fall from the top spot; how far up No. 9 Aquinas will jump will be determined on Monday.

Lescano, a senior, admitted he was thrilled to finally be a part of the action on the field after backing up Jacob Rudock the past two seasons. He looked more than ready for his debut, throwing for two TDs and rushing for two more in the victory.

He even sounded like a veteran when he suggested the off-the-field stuff will take care of itself.

"There's so much history with the program and it feels great to be a part of it," he said. "But really, come Monday, it is nothing. We have a lot of work to do and winning just this game is not our goal."

Aquinas' schedule won't give the team a chance to celebrate for very long. In addition to the Florida schedule is a huge game with West Coast power Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, currently No. 4.

And while Lescano appears to have the rebuilt offense rolling, you can't forget about the defense, too.

Cox may have made the defensive play of the game - "The ball just floated up there," he said - but he was just one of the stars.

The defensive front pressured Prattville throughout. Star defensive end Jelani Hamilton didn't start and was limited due to a knee injury, but he was there at the end, recording the fourth-down sack in the closing seconds that ended Prattville's last-gasp chance.

The series before, Aquinas held on an attempted fourth-down conversion on the Aquinas 32.

Casullo offered praise for the group. But, like any coach, offered a recommendation, too.

"They stepped up and made the plays when we needed them to," he said. "This wasn't a perfect performance and we have work to do, but our guys rose to the occasion."

That's what Aquinas always seems to do. It won the RivalsHigh national title in 2008, was headed to a repeat in 2009 before a stunning semifinal loss in the state playoffs, and finished No. 2 a year ago.

Not bad.

It's one of the reasons Cox wanted to be a part of this program. And it's a history and tradition he wants to add to.

"We thought we could win all week ... all summer. And we did," he said. "Hopefully this is a first step to a national title."

  • RivalsHigh take: This was a fantastic start to the season and it would have been hard to have either team lose that game. Both made big plays and both showed a lot of heart and a lot of fight. The difference - as it is on most tight games - came down to the little things and that was an area Aquinas dominated.

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