ORLANDO (SFHSSports) – Missing a total 13 players with season-ending injury is supposed to be too much for a football team to overcome.READ MORE: South Florida Family Encourages Booster Shots After Vaccinated Relative Dies Of COVID-19
Don’t tell St. Thomas Aquinas that.
Like it has for the entire playoffs, St. Thomas used a “next man up” mentality – and the 200 total rushing yards didn’t hurt – to defeat Viera 45-10 Friday night, winning its second consecutive Class 7A state championship night in the Orlando Citrus Bowl in front of 5,390 fans.
Senior running backs Jaxson Kincaide and James Charles, who overcame their own injuries and have been playing in place of injured ball carriers Mike Epstein and Devontae Henry-Cole, punctuated their respective high school careers with brilliant performances.
Kincaide, a Southern Illinois commit, rushed for a game-high 119 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries while Charles finished with 71 yards and two touchdowns on 12 attempts.
St. Thomas’ defense put on one of its stingiest performances of the season – holding Viera to just 166 total yards of offense and registering five sacks.
After leading 28-3 at halftime, St. Thomas (13-1) turned on a running clock after a Charles touchdown run and a 12-yard interception return for a score by Adetutu Daranijo – taking a 42-3 lead with 6:58 left in the third quarter.
Aquinas led 45-3 before Viera (10-5) was able to score an inconsequential touchdown – a 1-yard Malek Folston run – to make the final margin 45-10.
Raiders head coach Roger Harriott, who completed his first year back as his alma mater with a championship ring and has now led to different programs to state titles, said Aquinas completed an “epic story” Saturday night.
“This is a special victory,” said Harriott, who won a Class 3A crown in 2012 at University School. “I’m extremely happy for our school, our coaches and our players. This has been an epic story and we put an epic exclamation point on it. We suffered a string of adversity through the season and we were able to persevere.”
“We believe everything happens for a reason and we know God has His hands on this program. We had young guys step in and be able to play this year, so the future is very bright for this program.”
Already in second place in FHSAA history for most state titles won, Friday’s win – Aquinas’ sixth state championship in the past nine years – was the Raiders’ ninth title. Jacksonville Bolles owns the all-time record with 11 rings.
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. And the number of state championships that Aquinas has won could have easily been larger had the Raiders not finished as state runner-ups in 1996, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2006.
The Raiders were able to get on top of Viera early.
Midway through the first quarter, junior quarterback Jake Allen connected with senior Sam Bruce on a 30-yard touchdown – in which Bruce caught the ball in the seam, juked a defender and stretched the ball across the goal line for the score – to put the Raiders up 7-0.
Aquinas’ defense was able to put constant pressure on the Hawks – evident by the four first half sacks – and stymied their offensive attack.READ MORE: 'Unacceptable,' South Florida Haitian Leaders Outraged Over What Happened In Del Rio, Texas
Then Kincaide and Charles each capped drives with short touchdown runs, putting Aquinas up 21-0 and very much in the driver’s seat.
Aquinas would stretch its lead to as much as 28-0 before Viera was able to show signs of life. The Hawks intercepted two Allen passes and turned on into a 9-play, 38-yard drive that ended with a Trey Schaneville 24-yard field goal.
Kincaide said that it was the team’s bond that helped it overcome the injury bug.
“Our motto is ‘next man up’ and the guys really bonded…we’re like a family,” Kincaide said. “We all stuck together through everything. Guys stepped up and played very well. We had young guys take on bigger roles and make plays for us.”
The adversity came in the form of injuries to starters like Nick Bosa, one of the nation’s top defensive players; emerging linebacker Drew White and starting senior cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams.
But St. Thomas’ youngsters did show the rest of the state that the program isn’t due for a drop off any time soon.
Sophomores Asante Samuel Jr. and Daranijo, who also finished with seven total tackles, each forced turnovers. Sophomore linebacker Darrell Shelton also had seven tackles, including two tackles for loss. Sophomore defensive end Nikolas Bonitto totaled six tackles and was credited with half a sack while 6-foot-2, 250-pound junior defensive lineman Kivon Bennett had one and a half sacks along with five total tackles.
Allen, who Aquinas thought was lost for the season with a back injury but returned at the start of the playoffs, finished the game 11-of-14 for 152 yards with a touchdown and the two first half interceptions.
Bruce finished with a team-high five receptions for 61 yards. Junior receiver Trevon Grimes and senior tight end Michael Irvin Jr. each finished with three catches with 70 and 33 yards respectively.
Berkowitz Achieves Rare Feat, Connolly Retiring
St. Thomas Aquinas offensive lineman Louie Berkowitz may have made history Friday night. By helping the Raiders win the Class 7A title, Berkowitz won his third state championship ring with his third team.
A 6-foot-3, 290-pound line anchor, Berkowitz won rings at University School (2012), American Heritage (2014) and now with Aquinas.
His offensive line coach, Jay Connolly punctuated his career with a state title. A teacher and football coach at St. Thomas Aquinas since 1976, Connolly has seen all there is to see at the Fort Lauderdale private school and football institution.
Connolly announced his pending retirement during the season and even took a back seat role as “assistant offensive line coach” to Tommy Mygrant, who’ll succeed Connolly as the Raiders O-Line coach.
“I don’t know how I feel yet, I’m still numb,” Connolly said. “Right now I feel ambivalent…mixed emotions of sadness and happiness because it’s ending but we won a championship tonight.”
“I’ve always tried to be the guy behind the scenes. I’ve seen it all here at St. Thomas Aquinas; I saw George Smith build the program, I saw Rocco Casullo come in and do a nice job and now working with Roger Harriott – he’s brought whole new life this year and I’m not worried at all…the program is in great hands and it is going to continue to thrive.”MORE NEWS: COVID-19 Death Toll Tops 53,000 In Florida