MIAMI — One of these days, the Jesuit Tigers are going to solve this riddle of how to get past the state semifinals and beat a team from South Florida in the process.
But unfortunately, Friday night wasn’t going to be the night as the Tigers had the tall task of traveling to Traz Powell Stadium to try and unseat two-time defending state champion Miami Northwestern on the Bulls home field.
Even though Jesuit showed plenty of fight, it simply wasn’t even close to enough to get it done as Northwestern prevailed 42-21 in a Class 5A state semifinal. Northwestern topped another Tampa Bay team, Armwood, in both state title games the past two years.
Friday marked the fourth time in the past five years that the Tigers have made it right to the doorstep of the state championship game, some place they haven’t been since 1992, only to be turned away with another semifinal loss.
Three of the past four years have come to South Florida teams on the road, joining losses to Cardinal Gibbons last year and Plantation American Heritage in 2016.
“Frustrating? Absolutely, but it is what it is,” said Jesuit coach Matt Thompson. “I told the kids that next year, it will be the same thing again and we’re just going to have to figure out how to get past these teams from South Florida. The road to the state finals usually goes through one of these teams and the fact that three of our four state semi losses have come to a team that went on to win the title tells you everything you need to know. And if Northwestern wins next week, that will be four out of five.”
Thompson couldn’t have asked for a better start. Not only did his defense stymie the Bulls offense in the first quarter, that unit game him the lead just 23 seconds before the end of the quarter when Todd Bowles Jr. scooped up a loose ball off a botched shotgun snap and rambled into the end zone from 6 yards out to put Jesuit up 7-0.
Then came a disastrous second quarter that saw Northwestern, which will take on Orlando Jones in the title game on Dec. 14 in Daytona Beach, respond with four unanswered touchdowns to go into the halftime locker room up 28-7.
“Our worst quarter all season but I was proud how our kids fought back,” said Thompson. “When teams like that get up on you like that, they usually take off and roll you but our kids didn’t let that happen.”
When Northwestern (12-2) put an opening second-half drive together and closed in on the Jesuit red zone, it indeed looked like a running clock (point differential of 35 or more) might be a possibility.
But the Tigers defense then came up big again when Ricky Parks picked off a botched shovel pass by quarterback Taron Dickens and bolted 61 yards for a score to make it 28-14. Even after the Bulls answered with a Dickens touchdown pass late in the third quarter, the Tigers kept grinding.
Parks, who had been held in check by the stout Northwestern defense all night up to that point (34 yards on 14 carries), then busted loose for a 60-yard score to make it 35-21 and there was still 10:57 left in the game.
After the Tigers defense recovered a Northwestern fumble at their own 30, the offense drove back down the field again and was closing in on the Bulls’ red zone with a chance to cut it to seven with five minutes and change left.
Then came the biggest swing play of the night when Bulls defensive end Wati Huggins broke through and crushed Jesuit quarterback Kiael Kelly with a huge sack, forcing the ball loose, which was picked up and returned 35 yards by the Bulls. Four plays later Dickens hit on a 35-yard touchdown pass with 4:41 left and that was the back-breaker for the Tigers.
“We knew what we were up against tonight and even though nobody really believed in us or gave us a chance, we believed in each other,” said Parks, who finished with 109 yards on 17 carries. “Even though we fell behind, we kept battling all the way to the end and I’m proud of my teammates for that. We didn’t give up. Yeah, it’s frustrating and tough to get this far and lose but we’ll get back to work and come back next year and work even harder. That’s all we can do.”
Said Thompson: “We started out great but then the wheels obviously fell off in the second quarter and we dug ourselves a hole. Teams like Northwester will usually roll you at that point but they didn’t. We came out and kept fighting. These kids showed their heart and character and were still very much in the game late so how can you not be proud of them for that.”