Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas has a chance to win its first national championship in the program's 63-year history.
But a familiar foe stands in its way.
Duron Carter will follow in his fathers footsteps and play WR at Ohio State
Lakeland (Fla.), ranked No. 11 in the RivalsHigh 100, prevented the nation's No. 1-ranked Raiders from winning state titles in 1996, 2004, 2005 and 2006. Now the two teams meet again in the Florida 5A final Friday in Orlando.
"We've had some pretty good games, and some pretty lopsided games," said St. Thomas coach George Smith, who is in his 31st season. "They are certainly a very good football team. I have the utmost respect for those guys, and I hope they feel the same about us."
The Raiders (14-0) seek to defend their state title from a year ago. They haven't played a game decided by less than 21 points since beating Cincinnati Elder 35-24 in the Herbstreit Challenge to open the 2008 season. Elder, whose only other loss was to No. 3 St. Ignatius 28-20 in the Ohio Division I state championship game, is ranked No. 18 in the RivalsHigh 100.
Lakeland (14-0) is back in the state final after losing in the regional semifinals last year. The young Dreadnaughts were national champions in 2005 and 2006, defeating the Raiders 39-10 in 2005 and 45-42 in double overtime the next year.
Few players from the current teams had any part in those games, but the coaches haven't forgotten.
"The last game, we were up 35-14 with 2:25 left and they came back and put it in overtime, and we were lucky as heck to win it," said Lakeland coach Bill Castle, who is in his 33rd season with the Dreadnaughts. "We have had some tough games with them."
While all the major high school polls, including the RivalsHigh 100, list St. Thomas as the country's top team, Smith and his squad haven't talked about that status or the possibility of being a national champion.
"Obviously, it's a great honor for the team to be considered, but it's not on my mind and it's not on the players' minds," Smith said. "You've got to have some respect from around the country to be in that situation, but right now that's not what we're about. We'd like to win the state championship."
So would St. Thomas, which has outscored its opponents 639-110 this season, including 175-43 in four playoff games. The Raiders' 35-14 state semifinal win over Largo is their narrowest margin of victory.
"They deserve their ranking," Castle said. "If there is a team better than them, I'd like to see them."
In fact, Castle, who has been a part of six state titles at Lakeland, said he has never seen a team as good as this St. Thomas squad.
"They are just an unbelievable offense, and their defense, they've got shutdown corners that make it very hard for you," Castle said. "They are extremely talented at every position, and their kicking game is incredible. Of all the team's [Smith has] had, this is by far the best team he's ever had. They are loaded everywhere."
St. Thomas quarterback Ryan Becker leads a potent spread offense that features senior wide receiver Duron Carter − the Ohio State-bound son of former NFL receiver Cris Carter, who is a member of the St. Thomas coaching staff − and junior running back Giovanni Bernard, who totals 1,423 yards and 18 touchdowns on 152 carries.
Carter has posted 726 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns on 37 catches.
"He's had a good year for us, and he's worked hard to get better," Smith said of Carter. "I think his best football is still in front of him when he grows into his body."
Becker, working behind a big offensive line that has allowed just six sacks, is an efficient passer. He has completed 64.4 percent of his 180 attempts for 1,927 yards and 27 touchdowns with just five interceptions.
He is one of only a handful of players back from last year's team − including Carter, senior receiver Dwayne Difton and about five others − and Becker has only improved with time.
Smith said despite the personnel changes, the Raiders are still playing the same style of football they played last year with a few improvements. He has five Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) commitments and expects a few more by signing day.
Lakeland is less star-studded than some of its past teams, but Smith said the Dreadnaughts are solid all around.
"They like to run, but if that doesn't work they can throw it," Smith said. "Their quarterback is very multidimensional. They are very dangerous defensively. They are like they always are. They have been very good over the years, and it's business as usual with them."
Dreadnaughts junior quarterback Jarred Haggins has completed 68 of 120 passes for 1,206 yards and 13 touchdowns, and three running backs have more than 500 yards rushing. The running back group is led by senior Aaron Truedell's 710 yards and 17 touchdowns. Sophomore receiver Javares McRoy is a deep threat with 914 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns.
Lakeland is multiple on offense, mainly using the I-formation but some spread. Castle said although his team doesn't like to throw much, he expects to be forced into passing situations Friday – just as the Dreadnaughts were against Pine Forest in a 22-21 victory in the state semifinals.
The St. Thomas defense has allowed just 1,403 yards rushing this season. Wisconsin commitment Conor O'Neill leads the unit. He has 67½ tackles, 7½ tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and 1½ sacks.
"It's going to be hard to move the ball on St. Thomas unless we have some success throwing," Castle said.
Lakeland has been known to rally late in games, but Castle is concerned by the number of injuries suffered on the defensive side of the ball.
Junior linebacker Will Lucas, who leads the team with 87 tackles, could be limited with a badly sprained ankle. Senior defensive back Laconia Blake has a deep bruise in his thigh, and defensive tackles Xavier Mothersill and Ronnie Jones also are limping with leg and ankle injuries.
"We are so beat up, first thing we just have to get on the bus and get over there," Castle joked.
Castle is hoping his players will be healthy enough to play Friday, but even a full-strength defense will have its hands full.
So what does Lakeland need to do?
"You just have to keep them from making big plays on you," Castle said. "At least make them earn it with three plays rather than one play. They've scored [on] a lot of one-play drives. They are just so explosive.
"Then offensively, it's easier to say than do, but move the ball somehow, take a little time off the clock and shorten the game somehow."
Game of the Week Florida 5A Finals: St. Thomas Aquinas versus Lakeland
KEY TO THE GAME: St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders
Bring out the swagger: The Raiders just need to continue doing what they do. They bring a confidence that comes along with an explosive offense that typically does a lot of damage in the first half. Getting up early in this one could be key. Lakeland is a team that has been here before and knows how to beat the best - even when it may not be expected.
KEY TO THE GAME: Lakeland Dreadnaughts
Prevent the big plays: St. Thomas has scored on several one-play drives and its offense is not often halted, but for Lakeland to have a chance it needs to at least draw out the Raiders' possessions. Lakeland has been known for its defense, which has allowed just 12.3 points per game this season. However, the Dreadnaughts are banged up on that side of the ball and face a challenge against a potent offense that can run and throw.
Note: THE LAST MEETING
The last time these two teams met was in the 2006 state championship, which Lakeland won 45-42 in double overtime. St. Thomas trailed 35-14 with 2:25 left, but the Raiders recovered two onside kicks and scored three consecutive touchdowns to send the game to overtime. Facing fourth down from the 1-yard line and down by a field goal in the second overtime, the Raiders put the ball in the hands of Jeremiah Harden, but the Lakeland defense stopped him just shy of the end zone to seal the win.