For the sixth time overall and the third time in the past four years, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas won a state championship, defeating the Tampa Plant Panthers 29-7 for the Class 5A title Friday, December 17, at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
As they have done all season, the Raiders (15-0) used solid performances on both sides of the ball to defeat the Panthers (12-3). Plant had won two state titles in the past two seasons, the Class 5A last year and the Class 4A in 2008.
No team scored more than seven points against the Raiders in the playoffs with the 22-point victory over Plant the closest postseason game for Aquinas.
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"This is a very special win for us. This is really a great feeling for this team," Aquinas coach George Smith said. "It means a great deal for them (the players) and a great deal for us as coaches."
Smith, who has coached the Raiders for 34 years and owns a 357-66 record over that time, said his team had to overcome an illness that affected several players during the week. Four or five starters suffered from a stomach virus, he said. "I was surprised we hung in the way we did."
The Raiders were nursing a 13-7 lead late in the first half, when on second-and-11 from their own 7, sophomore running back Fred Coppet gave Aquinas what coach Smith called a "huge" momentum boost when he found a hole off the left side of the offensive line and then outran the Plant defense to the end zone.
The touchdown gave the Raiders a 20-7 lead and a big boost going into the locker room at halftime.
"Freddie hit the hole nice," Smith said, admitting that the Raiders were just trying to run out the clock so Plant couldn't have the ball back before halftime.
Coppet led all rushers with 168 yards on 10 carries. In addition to the 93-yarder, he had a 52-yard scamper to set up an Aquinas field goal.
Jacob Rudock had 283 yards passing for the Raiders, as he was 13-of 23 with two touchdowns, both to Rashad Greene, who had 148 yards on six catches.
Plant's James Wilder, a Florida State commit, gained 72 yards on 21 carries. He had one touchdown.
Alabama commit Phillip Ely was just 13-of-35 for 166 yards for the Panthers, as he was harassed by the Aquinas defense most of the game. Austin Aikens had three catches for 89 yards to lead Plant.
Aquinas got on the scoreboard first when Nolan Bieck kicked a 28-yard field goal. The Raiders set up the field goal on their first play from scrimmage when Rudock found Phillip Dorsett for a 42-yard gain to the Plant 9-yard line.
But, the Plant defense stiffened, allowing no more yards and forcing the 28-yard field goal try.
Plant, meanwhile, drove from its own 20 to the Aquinas 12-yard line following the field goal, but missed a 30-yard field goal try. It was wide right.
It began to look like an NFL game as the Raiders then used a 52-yard run by Coppet to set up the second field goal of the contest for Aquinas. Bieck hit this one from 31 yards with 36 seconds remaining in the first quarter to give the Raiders a 6-0 lead.
The defenses continued to dominate into the second period, as other than the 42-yard pass and 52-yard run for Aquinas, neither team could do a whole lot on offense.
Plant finally got on the board with 7:33 left in the second period when Wilder pounded it in from the 8-yard line. The touchdown was set up on a pair of passes from Ely to Aikens. The first went for 48 yards and the second followed on the next play for 27 yards. Grant Van Aman added the extra point to give the Panthers a 7-6 lead.
Two touchdowns in the final 91 seconds of the first half turned the game around for the Raiders, as Rudock hit Greene for a 34-yard touchdown pass. Greene made a great catch on the play, battling the Plant defender. Bieck added the extra point to give the Raiders a 13-7 lead with 1:31 left in the first half.
Plant moved the ball thanks to an Aquinas penalty, but was forced to punt.
The Raiders, facing a second-and-11 from their own 7, ran Coppet to the left side of the line to try to run out the clock, but the sophomore had other plans and outran the Plant defense for a 93-yard touchdown with 19 seconds left in the first half.
Bieck's extra point gave the Raiders momentum and a 20-7 lead at halftime.
In the third period, the teams once again settled into a defensive mode, as both teams were forced to punt after gaining a first down or two.
The only score of the third period was Bieck's third field goal of the game as he nailed a 31-yarder with 1:09 left in the quarter. It finished a drive that started at the Aquinas 16-yard line and took 5:41 off the third-quarter clock.
Plant got some life late in the third period when a penalty on the Raiders rescued the Panthers from a misfired fourth-down play. The Panthers converted another fourth down in the drive, but Ely was picked off by Marcus Roberson in the end zone.
The Raiders slammed the door shut on the Panthers when Greene took a quick hitch pass from Rudock, broke a tackle and scampered 74 yards for the touchdown. The extra point was blocked, but it didn't matter as Aquinas led, 29-7, with 7:04 left in the fourth period.
The game was played before 5,482 fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando.