-- Arguably the best football team in Florida flexed its muscles Friday night and further solidified its status among the nation's elite programs.
St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
completed a perfect 15-0 season with an impressive 29-7 victory over defending state champion Plant (Tampa) to claim the Class 5A championship trophy for the third time in four years and the sixth in the program's history. The win also caps a remarkable four-year run in which the Raiders, ranked No. 4 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25, boast a 52-1 record, the lone loss coming last year against Manatee (Bradenton) in the state semifinals.
"It's been a phenomenal season, especially after coming off a disappointing loss to Manatee last year," St. Thomas Aquinas coach George Smith said. "It's the first time our program has ever beaten a defending state champ (in the final)."
Four years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas lost a heartbreaking triple-overtime championship game to Lakeland, and Smith credited a renewed dedication to improving his players' strength and endurance since that game for the success the program has enjoyed the past four seasons.
"I think our weight program and our offseason training plan has vastly improved (the last four years)," Smith said.
Friday night's showdown at the Florida Citrus Bowl featured the MaxPreps No. 1-rated recruit in Plant senior running back James Wilder. But it was a backup running back and a big-play passing combination for St. Thomas Aquinas that stole the spotlight as the Raiders amassed 472 yards total offense and their defense limited Plant to 235 yards while bottling up Wilder most of the game.
Frederick Coppet, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound sophomore for Aquinas, provided the game-changing play when he sliced through a narrow hole off left tackle, broke to the sideline and raced 93 yards for a touchdown with 19 seconds remaining in the first half to give Aquinas a 20-7 lead. Coppet, the No. 3 running back on the St. Thomas Aquinas depth chart, had 152 yards rushing at halftime, 97 yards more than Wilder at that point.
Coppet finished the game with 196 all-purpose yards, including 168 yards rushing on 10 carries.
"I was thinking, ‘I've got to get to the end zone,'" Coppet said of his touchdown run.
The Aquinas defense limited Wilder, who entered the game with 1,525 yards rushing this season, to 72 yards on 21 carries and Plant's only touchdown. Wilder's longest run from scrimmage was 13 yards.
"We were just trying to stop him from running wild on us," Smith said of the Aquinas game plan against Wilder.
Aquinas quarterback Jacob Rudock, an Iowa verbal commit, passed for 283 yards and two touchdowns, both caught by senior Rashad Greene who had six receptions for 148 yards.
St. Thomas Aquinas had a 6-0 lead on field goals of 28 and 31 yards by Nolan Bieck in the first quarter. But Wilder's 8-yard touchdown run with 7:33 remaining the second quarter gave Plant a 7-6 lead, the first time this season that St. Thomas Aquinas trailed in a game.
That lead was short-lived, however, as was Plant's hopes of repeating as state champs. Greene made an outstanding catch with a Plant defender draped over him that regained the lead for Aquinas late in the second quarter. Greene's 34-yard touchdown catch from Rudock made it 13-7 with 1:31 remaining in the first half before Coppet's back-breaking touchdown run gave St. Thomas a huge momentum swing heading into the intermission.
"I was just hoping for him to get a couple of yards and we'd head into the locker room, but he sprung it," Rudock said of Coppet.
Bieck added his third field goal of the game, a 37-yarder late in the third quarter, and Rudock and Greene hooked up on a 74-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter to punctuate the victory.
MR. FOOTBALL WINNER LEADS JEFFERSON TO 3A TITLE
Senior quarterback Quentin Williams had the most memorable day of his high school career. He was named the state's Mr. Football early Friday afternoon, then threw three touchdown passes and rushed for two scores to lead unbeaten Jefferson (Tampa) to a 44-34 win against Norland (Miami) in the Class 3A championship game, the first state title in the Dragons' history.
Williams, who has made a verbal commitment to Bethune-Cookman, passed for 151 yards and rushed for 73 yards to spearhead the Jefferson (15-0) offense that was the highest scoring in the state this season. Demetrius Russell rushed for 132 yards for Jefferson.
Jefferson built a 37-7 lead by the halfway point of the second quarter and then held off a Norland comeback attempt in the second half. Norland (13-2) scored two touchdowns in the final 3:26 of the game.