Friday, December 19, 2008

St. Thomas Aquinas: A most deserving Prep Poll champion

Let no one ever accuse George Smith of being a politician.

Back in late July, I spoke on the telephone with the St. Thomas Aquinas head coach informing him that his was one of three teams under consideration for the No. 1 ranking in the preseason National Prep Poll.

Paraphrasing here, he said, “Jamie, we’re way too young to be ranked that high. At least at the start of the season … I’d rank us around No. 15.”

I divided his number by three and made the Raiders No. 5 in the preseason poll.

Now, St. Thomas Aquinas is No. 1 with not only a bullet but an arsenal of heat-guided missiles after capturing its second straight Florida 5A state championship Friday night. The Raiders opened a commanding 35-0 halftime lead and clobbered previously unbeaten No. 16 Lakeland by a final tally of 56-7.

Aquinas completely dominated a previously unbeaten and nationally ranked team. The Raiders pushed around the Dreadnaughts, and they ran around the Dreadnaughts. They very well might have won the game by 70 points had the running clock rule not kicked in during the third quarter.

Lakeland, the only other Florida team to end the year ranked No. 1 in the National Prep Poll (2006), was going for its fourth state championship in five seasons.

Each of the Dreadnaughts’ previous three state championship game victories decade were against St. Thomas Aquinas, in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

Although none of the four teams that started this season ranked ahead of St. Thomas Aquinas had yet to lose, the Raiders moved to No.1 in the National Prep Poll on September 22.

When the final Prep Poll of the season is released Sunday evening, St. Thomas Aquinas will remain No. 1 for the 13th consecutive week after stating perhaps the most convincing case for a mythical national championship ever seen in the 10 years I’ve been compiling the Prep Poll.

Usually, I go into the last weekend of the season feeling a little bit nervous the team we have ranked No. 1 – if they are still playing – will get knocked off in a state championship game and a new No. 1 team will need to be determined.

After all, nationally No. 1-ranked teams must play with the eyes of their own state – and an entire nation -- upon them. It's an enormous bulls-eye on their back.

But Aquinas took that bulls-eye and fashioned it into a Superman’s cape.

The Raiders beat opponents by an average score of 47-7 after taking over the National Prep Poll’s No. 1 ranking.

Folks in South Florida will surely debate who would win a mythical matchup between this year’s St. Thomas Aquinas team and last year’s Miami Northwestern squad, which finished No. 1 in the ESPN and USA Today polls and was No. 2 in the National Prep Poll.

To me, there is no debate.

There’s no question, last year’s Northwestern team was loaded with top college prospects. Ten seniors signed with Division I colleges, including eight who inked with the hometown Miami Hurricanes.

But anyone who watched this year’s Aquinas team saw there’s no shortage of Division I talent on the Raiders’ roster. At least six seniors are expected to sign with BCS-level programs and a half dozen juniors are expected to be equally recruitable.

College prospects aside, in my opinion, this St. Thomas Aquinas team was simply more impressive on the field than Northwestern – or probably any other I’ve seen in the last 10 years. They were extremely balanced and explosive on offense, they were hard-nosed and physical on defense, and they were led by one of the best coaches in prep football history.

Overall, the Raiders’ body of work was unbelievably impressive.

Northwestern, rightfully so, got a lot of credit for beating Texas power Southlake Carroll by eight points on the road in its third game of last season. It was a very good Southlake Carroll team the Bulls beat, but it was a Southlake Carroll team that bowed out in the third round of Texas state playoffs.

St. Thomas Aquinas started this season with a road trip to Cincinnati where it defeated Ohio Division I runner-up Elder, 35-24. Keep in mind, it was Aquinas’ first game of the season and the game was played after the Raiders practiced in pads for only two weeks whereas Elder already had played one regular season game and two full-contact scrimmages.

The bottom line is this: Each and every team to finish a season as the National Prep Poll’s mythical national champion has been very deserving of the achievement.

But when history looks back at Prep Poll champions of this decade, no team should be thought more worthy of the distinction than this year’s St. Thomas Aquinas team.

State championship scores for National Prep Poll titlists this decade
2000: No. 1 De La Salle 49, San Leandro 13 (CIF-NCS 4A championship)
2001: No. 1 De La Salle 48, San Leandro 13 (CIF-NCS 4A championship)
2002: No. 1De La Salle 42, San Leandro 14 (CIF-NCS 4A championship)
2003: No. 1 De La Salle 39, Pittsburg 0 (CIF-NCS 4A championship)
2004: No. 1 Southlake Carroll 27, Smithson Valley 24 (Texas 5A/II championship)
2005: No. 1 Southlake Carroll 34, No. 10 Katy 20 (Texas 5A/II championship)
2006: No. 1 Lakeland 45, St. Thomas Aquinas 42 (Florida 5A championship)
2007: No. 2 St. Xavier 27, MW No. 5 Mentor 0 (Ohio Division I championship)
2008: No. 1 St. Thomas Aquinas 56, No. 16 Lakeland 7 (Florida 5A championship)


flaboy said...

you did not like 2007 Miami Northwestern from the start, which is why you did what you did to them at the end of the season. So of course you do.

Anonymous said...

Jamie had MNW #1 for most of the season but then they stumbled against Deerfield Beach, and still won. STA lost to DFB last year, their only loss while winning state. I think MNW would have won a close game last year but I think STA wins it this year.