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Jesuit topples state powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas

The Tigers edge the nationally-ranked Raiders, who were a last-minute replacement for Wharton.
Jesuit gets a statement victory Friday night, knocking off two-time defending champion St. Thomas Aquinas 24-21.
Jesuit gets a statement victory Friday night, knocking off two-time defending champion St. Thomas Aquinas 24-21. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 4
Updated Sep. 4

TAMPA — As the cars filed out of Jesuit on Friday night, We Are the Champions blared out of an open window.

“We took on a giant and did a great job,” said Jesuit coach Matt Thompson, whose Tigers stunned Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas — Florida’s all-time leader in state championships — on a 9-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Luke Knight to senior wide receiver Jaydn Girard in the closing seconds for a 24-21 victory.

The game-winning pass by Knight, a first-year starter, represented the seventh lead change in a game that featured nine turnovers — six by Aquinas, who has 12 state titles, including back-to-back Class 7A crowns the past two seasons. The Raiders, ranked sixth nationally and second in the state by MaxPreps, also committed 13 penalties for 122 yards and were a fill-in for Wharton, which backed out of its game with Jesuit because of coronavirus issues. Thompson picked up the Aquinas game on Wednesday.

“Two days ago, we scheduled this game, and it wasn’t to be somebody’s doormat or to get a team in and see how well we were,” Thompson said. “We fully expected to win, and that’s what we practiced for.”

The game-winning drive covered 45 yards in eight plays. Knight got Jesuit deep into Aquinas territory with a 17-yard strike to junior wide receiver Jarriett Buie Jr., moving the ball to the 19. Moments later, a pass interference call in the end zone against the Raiders gave the Tigers a first down at the 9 — nullifying an interception by Aquinas senior Jerrod Cameron — to set up Knight’s memorable toss.

Initially, Knight thought teammates were kidding him about facing Aquinas.

“Actually, I walked to the sidelines Wednesday and (the offensive captains) said, ‘We’re playing St. Thomas,’” Knight said. “I didn’t believe them. . . . I was like, ‘No way.’ They were saying, ‘You scared?’ I said, ‘No, I live for this.’”

Junior running back Joquez Smith rushed 22 times for 172 yards (146 in the first half), including a 42-yard touchdown run and a 50-yard scamper that set up a 21-yard field goal by junior Jack Ferreri for the game’s first points.

But it was the Jesuit defense that kept bringing it all night. Senior middle linebacker A.J. Cottrill produced one of the major turnovers, scoring on a 30-yard fumble return with only eight seconds left before halftime to give the Tigers a 17-14 lead.

Seniors Hayes Greep, and juniors Troy Bowles and Kevin Doherty added interceptions, and senior Connor Charest recovered a fumble. Aquinas senior running back Anthony Hankerson also fumbled through the Jesuit end zone while attempting to score in the first quarter.

“We swarm to the ball and we’re pretty damn good,” Thompson said. “Our defense is just as good as theirs, and if we just play and believe in ourselves, that’s how we play.

“I believed the whole time, and that’s the thing about believing. If you believe hard enough, it’s going to come true. This is my biggest win (in nine years at Jesuit. ... Absolutely.”