December 22, 2008

St. Thomas Aquinas wins high school national title

MORE: The nation's top 100 teams | 2008 high school football state champions

ORLANDO, Fla. - It doesn't take long to realize Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas is a national championship-caliber football team.

Just ask a coach who has been at the top of the high school football universe.

"They are the best, no doubt about that," Lakeland coach Bill Castle said after falling to the national champion Raiders in Florida's Class 5A state championship game.

Castle led the Dreadnaughts (14-1) to a pair of national championships in 2005 and 2006, but he could not come up with any solutions to stopping St. Thomas (15-0) in a 56-7 drubbing Friday in Orlando, Fla., a game that clinched the RivalsHigh national title for the Raiders.

It marked the first national championship and fifth state title for St. Thomas and coach George Smith, who has guided the Raiders for 32 years. Three of the last four national champions came out of Florida's Class 5A, which is arguably one of the most challenging divisions in the country.

"If you win the state championship in the state of Florida, you've got a decent football team no matter what class you are in," Smith said. "We didn't talk about that [the national championship], but if that comes with it, that is a very unbelievable event."

The players knew a national title was on the line. With three minutes left in the game, they already were dumping Gatorade coolers on coaches and pointing index fingers to the sky to celebrate the inevitable victory.

"It's great," said senior wide receiver and Ohio State recruit Duron Carter, the son of NFL great Cris Carter. "I can't explain it. It's the best season in St. Thomas history. It feels good."

St. Thomas left no doubt it was worthy of the national championship, jumping to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter and a 35-0 halftime advantage. Eight different players accounted for the scoring, which included a mix of passing and rushing, long and short, and an interception that linebacker Conor O'Neill returned 20 yards.

The lopsided victory wasn't a fluke.

The Raiders didn't play a game decided by less than 21 points since beating Cincinnati (Ohio) Elder 35-24 in the season-opening Herbstreit Challenge. Elder was a state runner-up and is also ranked in the RivalsHigh 100.

"The fire we had in this team was amazing," senior quarterback Ryan Becker said. "The first game we started out a little slow, but that was our wake-up call. We knew we had a team that was going to win the [state] championship. We worked hard every day, and we had that fire and that passion."

Becker was the leader of an offense that averaged 408.4 yards and 46.3 points a game. He finished with 2,027 yards passing and 30 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He threw three touchdown passes and added a rushing touchdown Friday.

St. Thomas' dominance this season wasn't just about the offense, though.

The defense, led by the Wisconsin-bound O'Neill, allowed 7.8 points per game and gave up 14 points or less in every outing except the Elder game, and special teams was just as good.

Punter Ben Turke is committed to Notre Dame, kicker Mike Palardy had touchbacks on all seven of his kickoffs Friday and punt/kick returner Ronnie Kennedy finished the season with three touchdowns on special teams.

"It was a whole team effort, and it's been that way ever since we got on a plane to go to Ohio," Smith said. "We got better every game, especially down the stretch."

St. Thomas has played in the last five Class 5A state championships, winning the last two, including a 35-20 win over Kissimmee-Osceola last year. The Raiders lost title games to Lakeland three years in a row from 2004-06, making the 2008 championship that much sweeter.

The last meeting in 2006 was especially heartbreaking for St. Thomas, which came back from a 35-14 deficit with 2:25 left only to fall in double overtime.

"It just brings a little extra spark for it," Becker said. "We just wanted to win it for Coach Smith and those seniors [from the graduating classes] of '07, '06 and '05."

Smith, unlike his players, was there for all three losses.

"It's really special obviously," Smith said. "We've been on the other side of this thing with them, but to come out and play the way we played early on and to continue to play like that against a team like Lakeland is certainly a tremendous emotion to me for our players."

The Raiders have been a perennial power, but this group will have a legitimate claim as the best St. Thomas Aquinas squad in school history.

"Every team before us worked hard, but with God's grace, it came together," said Carter, who had one of his 14 touchdowns on the season in the championship game. "He gave us an opportunity and we converted on it."

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