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'Every game is a championship game for us'

St. Thomas Aquinas football wins its record-breaking 12th state title

Ja'Den McBurrows (1) joins teammates Tyson Russell (7) and Jaydon Hood (32) in celebrating McBurrows' 46-yard interception return for a touchdown late during the first half of St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Ja'Den McBurrows (1) joins teammates Tyson Russell (7) and Jaydon Hood (32) in celebrating McBurrows' 46-yard interception return for a touchdown late during the first half of St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

TALLAHASSEE | St. Thomas Aquinas attacked adversity in a year with adversity like no other. Because of that, the team built by George Smith and Roger Harriott now stands atop Florida high-school football.

Anthony Hankerson ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns, and the Raiders’ defense forced five Orlando Edgewater turnovers in a 31-21 victory in the Class 7A FHSAA Football Championship Game, held Dec. 19, 2020 in Tallahassee.

The Raiders (8-1) won in a rematch of last year’s 28-23 barnburner. As a result, St. Thomas passed Jacksonville Bolles into the overall lead with 12 state titles. Another archdiocesan school, Cardinal Gibbons, held back Bolles in the 4A final.

Senior lineman Marco Fugar (56) looks at the scoreboard as he celebrates St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Senior lineman Marco Fugar (56) looks at the scoreboard as he celebrates St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

“When adversity strikes, you gotta get motivated, and we got motivated,” junior quarterback Zion Turner said. “When you come through the St. Thomas program, every season is state championship or national championship. This year, we did what we had to do.”

 

TURNOVERS DEFUSE EAGLES

Ja’Den McBurrows and Jerrod Cameron intercepted passes, Derrieon Craig recovered two fumbles, and Tyreak Sapp recovered another to help hold back the Eagles, who burned the Raiders defense for 498 total yards. Edgewater quarterback Canaan Mobley completed 17 of 33 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

Hankerson scored on runs of 4, 12 and 9 yards. Turner completed 8 of 15 passes for 113 yards and also ran seven times for 41 yards.

“Anthony did an amazing job, scoring three touchdowns today,” Turner said. “Every time he ran a touchdown, I put my hands up, touchdown. I already knew it was a touchdown. We worked really hard on the read-option, perfecting it. it’s great to see us put on a show.”

St. Thomas Aquinas receiver Mason Taylor signals a first down after being tackled by Edgewater's Christopher Fulse during the first half of St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas receiver Mason Taylor signals a first down after being tackled by Edgewater's Christopher Fulse during the first half of St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

A tight game turned on a 2-minute, 9-second stretch of the second quarter. Tied 7-7, Craig recovered an Edgewater fumble at the Eagles’ 28. Two plays later, Hankerson’s 12-yard touchdown run put the Raiders up 14-7. McBurrows then returned an interception 46 yards for a 21-7 Raiders lead. Mobley’s pass bounced off Christian Leary and into McBurrows’ hands.

“We feel like we’re a strong second-half team,” St. Thomas head coach Harriott said. “Once we get into the second half and we wear teams down, ultimately it’s about our faith and belief. By God’s grace, he puts us in position, and we put in the work. For us it’s a ministry. It goes way beyond the field.”

 

MUST STAY STRONG

The Raiders never trailed after that, but Edgewater’s Cedric Baxter’s 3-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left in the first half gave the Raiders notice that they weren’t going away.

St. Thomas Aquinas running back Anthony Hankerson gets up to celebrate his 12-yard touchdown run during the second quarter of St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas running back Anthony Hankerson gets up to celebrate his 12-yard touchdown run during the second quarter of St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Max Larson’s 32-yard field goal with 3:11 left in the third quarter put the Raiders up 24-14. Connelly’s 4-yard run 1:40 later cut the Raiders’ lead to 24-21.

The Raiders then turned to Hankerson to put the game away. He delivered, scoring on a 9-yard run with 9:15 left in the game. However, he twisted his right ankle on the touchdown run.

“The running game was always there. The defense was picking up on what we were doing, so coaches talked and the players talked and we got things going,” Hankerson said. “Inside zone, outside zones, read-options. I get the ball. They key on me, and (Zion) takes it.”

Edgewater threatened on the next drive, driving down to the St. Thomas 3 to face fourth-and-1. Craig then stopped Leary for a 1-yard loss, forced Leary to fumble and recovered it.

“Fourth down is the money down,” Craig said. “We need to get off the field. I had to make a play.”

Edgewater threatened one last time, driving to the St. Thomas 6. Tyreak Sapp forced Leary to fumble again and recovered to end the Eagles’ last threat.

St. Thomas Aquinas coach Roger Harriott holds onto the trophy while celebrating the Raiders' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas coach Roger Harriott holds onto the trophy while celebrating the Raiders' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

“I don’t know if it was jitters or the moment was too big for Leary, but he was having a shaky game,” Sapp said. “I went in on an all-out blitz, got through, got penetration and he dropped the ball and I took advantage.”

 

GOALS ARE THE SAME

That the Raiders even got to play a season turned into a case of overcoming adversity. When the worldwide coronavirus pandemic filtered into south Florida, normal things were stolen. Spring football? Gone. Off-season weight-room workouts? Gone. Seven-on-seven for skill players? Gone.

Smith, the current St. Thomas athletic director, said the Raiders and Cardinal Gibbons agreed to join the rest of the Broward County Athletic Association in taking the year off from the FHSAA state series because Dade, Broward and Palm Beach county schools did so. However, when the rest of the state began to play while south Florida kept pushing back, Smith said the archdiocese reached out to their schools and gave them the option to play in the FHSAA playoffs.

Smith said that this team deserved to be recognized in the annals of St. Thomas football for the adversity they conquered.

“We’ve never been in the locker room. We’ve never taken a shower,” Smith said. “As the kids come in, they have to go in the parking lot. They can’t get out of their car unless their temp is taken or oxygen situation, then they go to the second level of the parking garage and get in their pads and walk out to the practice field – day after day after day. What these guys have done with coach (Harriott) and their staff is remarkable.”

Harriott said the pandemic was just one concern. He said the national racial issues and political divides also gave the athletes opportunities to address adversity. He said it was important for his players to learn from that adversity and face it head-on. Plus, the faith helps equip the team to address off-field issues and on-field struggles.

Athletic director George Smith hugs senior captain Tyreak Sapp as other players celebrate St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Athletic director George Smith hugs senior captain Tyreak Sapp as other players celebrate St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

“By God’s grace, a lot of prayer, making sure they’re doing the right thing, focusing on what expectations are mostly off the field: That’s what it’s about for us,” Harriott said. “They understand we’re looking out for their best interest from a spiritual standpoint. That transitions into regular life.”

 

BATTLE PLAN VS. ADVERSITY

Craig said the Raiders had to game-plan against COVID the way they did against opponents. Senior offensive lineman Joshua Sauickie said the coaches helped the players stay motivated during their time away from group workouts.

“They were sending us things like a workout from a deck of cards,” Sauickie said. “Everybody was outside, so when we got the call to be back on Monday, we were done.”

Turner said many of the players weren’t fully ready when they returned to practices. “Coming out of offseason, everyone was out of shape. Including me, I was out of shape,” he said. “We had to crank the whole playbook into two weeks. It’s adversity. When adversity strikes, you gotta get motivated, and we got motivated.”

Once the team received the go-ahead to play, the Raiders struggled to put together a schedule. Unlike the national schedule the Raiders typically play, they played only four games before the playoffs. They opened Oct. 16 with a win against TRU Prep Academy, then lost to Cardinal Gibbons 17-10. They even traveled up to DeLand, winning 31-7. They also beat 5A champion Plantation American Heritage.

By that point, the Raiders were rolling. They mowed down Lehigh 50-14 and Bradenton Manatee 45-0. They then beat nemesis Venice 29-8 in the Region 4 final, and Valrico Bloomingdale 37-14 to reach the final.

Many Raiders said they were driven by the doubts of south Florida football fans. But the goals remain the same: a state championship and national championship.

“That’s our goal in the beginning of the season,” Hankerson said. “Every game is a championship game for us. We take it one game at a time.”

Coach Roger Harriott joins his players with the trophy in celebrating St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Coach Roger Harriott joins his players with the trophy in celebrating St. Thomas Aquinas' 31-21 victory over Orlando Edgewater, Dec. 19, 2020, in the FHSAA Class 7A Football State Championship Game at Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Raiders won their state-record 12th title.


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