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Surprise! After Wharton cancels, Jesuit gets highly ranked opponent

A COVID outbreak scuttled their game against the Wildcats, so the Tigers will play St. Thomas Aquinas instead.
Jesuit's defense is led by linebacker AJ Cottrill, pictured making a tackle during a region semifinal against Bishop Moore in November at Jesuit.
Jesuit's defense is led by linebacker AJ Cottrill, pictured making a tackle during a region semifinal against Bishop Moore in November at Jesuit. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 2
Updated Sep. 2

TAMPA — The flurry of postponements, cancellations and rescheduled high school football games continued in a big way this week — a crazy turn of events that suddenly has given Jesuit a great opportunity Friday night.

Due to coronavirus issues within Wharton’s program, Jesuit in a few hours Wednesday afternoon went from being scheduled to play the Wildcats to a frantic series of phone calls by Tigers coach Matt Thompson seeking an available opponent to ultimately landing a game against one of the top programs in the country: Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, ranked sixth nationally by MaxPreps.

Starting around 3 p.m., Thompson said, he started calling coaches who, like him, suddenly had an opening, including Countryside and Bartow. Bartow already had an opponent booked but had recently received a call from Aquinas, whose game with Plantation had been postponed.

Thompson called Aquinas, which said it would get to work setting up the logistics and getting the paperwork done. A few hours later, it was set for Friday night: Class 7A St. Thomas (1-0) at Class 6A Jesuit (1-0) at 7 p.m.

Thompson, whose team is ranked 55th nationally, highest among Tampa Bay area teams, said he watched film on Aquinas until 2 a.m. Thursday.

“We didn’t have much time to prepare, but we are very excited,” he said. “This an early-season test that should tell us a lot about where we are and what we need to improve on. (Aquinas) has no weaknesses. We expect them to test us in every way.”

Aquinas last year was declared the national champion by several ranking services after beating Saint Louis (Hawaii) in the GEICO state champions bowl series. The Raiders reportedly have around 20 Division I recruits, including 6-foot-5, 280-pound right tackle Julian Armella, the nation’s top-ranked offensive lineman by rivals.com.

Jesuit, ranked No. 3 in the state’s 6A poll, counters with plenty of talent, including 20 significant returnees from last year’s state semifinal squad, a round the Tigers have reached five of the last six years.

One of Jesuit’s biggest questions heading into the 2021 season was at quarterback, where sophomore Luke Knight has stepped into the starting role. In his first-ever start last week against West Port, Knight wasn’t perfect, Thompson said, but he was solid, completing 15 of 18 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

“I’m sure (Knight) will be a little nervous playing against Aquinas, but then who wouldn’t be?” Thompson said. “I think this will be great for him. As soon as we got the confirmation we were playing Aquinas, he was studying film and preparing. I’m sure he knows more about Aquinas than I do. He’s that type of a student of the game.”

Defensively, Jesuit looks particularly stout behind the leadership of linebackers AJ Cottrill (15 tackles per game as a junior) and Troy Bowles (ranked by many as one of the nation’s top juniors). But then, the Tigers’ defense may never have faced a challenge as great as Aquinas.

“We look forward to it,” Thompson said. “We should learn a lot about ourselves.”