ORLANDO – Given all of the success that St. Thomas Aquinas’ football program has found over the past 20 years; one would think that there are few historic feats that the storied program hasn’t already conquered.
But the Raiders made history Friday night, becoming the first Broward County team to win three consecutive football state championships after senior quarterback Jake Allen tossed five touchdown passes in a 45-6 rout of Tampa Plant in the Class 7A state title game at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.
Allen, a University of Florida commit, racked up 329 passing yards to go along with the five scores. Senior receiver Michael Harley was on the business end of three of those touchdown tosses – as he finished with five receptions for a game-high 133 receiving yards.
Harley’s final touchdown pass of the night – a 62-yard strike – put Aquinas ahead 45-6 with 37 seconds left in the third quarter and turned a running clock for the final 12 minutes.
Allen said that he visualized Friday’s performance in his head before it happened.
“It’s all about visualization. I saw it last night…I saw it before. I knew what I wanted to do,” Allen said. “And I just had to go out and execute it. It’s just about seeing it. If you go out before the game and you see it happening – you can do anything.”
“This season couldn’t have ended any better. It’s a great feeling to be Class 7A state champions. In camp we knew what we wanted to do, we just had to work hard to do it,” Allen added.
Harley said the team’s quest for the three-peat began 10 months ago.
“It’s a blessing to be in the position right now,” Harley said. “Right after signing day last February, we started grinding and grinding to get to this point. We just kept pushing and we’re champs now.”
St. Thomas Aquinas (12-2) jumped out early and never looked back. The Raiders rattled off 21 straight points – a pair of Allen touchdown passes and a 1-yard Mike Epstein plunge – before Tampa (13-1) was able to get on the board.
The Panthers had its most productive drive of the night end with a 1-yard Dane Frantzen run with just over four minutes to play in the second quarter. Aquinas blocked the extra point and left Plant stuck with those same six points for the final 28 minutes of the game.
Senior running Kyshaun Bryan led Aquinas with 66 yards, while Epstein finished with 56 yards on 10 carries.
Playing without one of the country’s premier pass-catching prospects in senior Trevon Grimes, who suffered a torn ACL during Aquinas’ loss to Gorman, didn’t slow down the Raiders passing game.
In Grimes’ absence, Harley, Joshua Palmer and Jordan Merrell filled the void and became consistent targets for Jake Allen. Palmer caught a game-high six passes for 80 yards Friday and Jordan Merrell added three catches for 60 yards and an 18-yard touchdown catch late in the third that put St. Thomas up 31-6.
“Our guys demonstrated great intestinal fortitude,” Harriott said. “As a result of integrity and love for St. Thomas Aquinas. So I’m extremely proud of our young men and our coaches.”
Over Aquinas’ historic three-year run, the Raiders compiled a 39-4 record. Half of those losses came to out-of-town opponents – New Jersey’s Don Bosco Prep in 2014 and Nevada’s Bishop Gorman this season – and they lost those four games by a total of 25 points.
With Friday’s win, St. Thomas Aquinas inches closer to the top of the heap for the most state championships in FHSAA history. The Raiders, who have won seven state titles over the past decade, now own 10 state championships; just one behind the state’s all-time leader – Jacksonville Bolles – which has 11 state rings.
Bolles has been stuck on 11 since 2011, despite playing in the Class 4A state championship game in four of the past five seasons – falling to Miami Booker T. Washington three consecutive times and losing to Cocoa Thursday in this year’s 4A final.
St. Thomas has been a pillar of sustained football success over the past two decades. The Raiders won two mythical national championships (2008 and 2010) in that span. Also, the number of state championships that Aquinas has won could have easily been greater had the Raiders not finished as state runners-up in 1996, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2006.
“We’re extremely proud,” said Harriott, who led Davie University School to a Class 3A state title in 2012. “Being able to capture this historic feat is a testament to all of the alumni that have through our program, the staff, the administration and everyone that makes St. Thomas Aquinas great.”
“What better way to end the season than celebrating a three-peat,” Harriott said, allowing a smile to run across his face.
It was all smiles for St. Thomas Friday night.
The Raiders defense held Plant to 218 total yards of offense and intercepted two Frantzen pass – one by Adetutu Daranijo and another by Jaden Davis. Junior defensive back and senior linebacker Drew White, a Notre Dame commit, each finished with seven tackles.
Frantzen ended up with 109 yards passing while completing 11 of his 26 passes and ran for 82 yards.
For Allen, who’s been one of the most heavily scrutinized quarterbacks in South Florida this season, he said his team could’ve succumbed to outside pressure and not have made it to Orlando.
“We hit some bumps in the road early on with Booker T. Washington and Bishop Gorman,” Allen said. “We could’ve laid down…but we didn’t lay down and now we’re state champions.”