FORT LAUDERDALE — On the state’s biggest high school stage, under the brightest lights, Jesuit’s football team pulled off a dramatic state title victory Saturday night at DRV PNK Stadium.
Trailing Pensacola Pine Forest by 15 points with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Jesuit had one player after another step up with huge plays, ultimately getting the game winner on a third-down, 7-yard touchdown pass to senior Jaydn Girard with 37 seconds remaining.
With 27 seconds left, Jesuit senior linebacker AJ Cottrill grabbed an interception and fell to his knees. Final score: Jesuit 35, Pine Forest 29.
“To do this on this stage, I can’t even put it into words,” Jesuit coach Matt Thompson said. “It feels even better to have done it in a dog fight against a team that was so tough in every way. Wow. I’m just trying to take it all in. It’s unbelievable.”
Highlights? Stars? There were so many that it’s tough to choose.
There was senior receiver Junior Vandeross, who had six catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns of 50 and 28 yards, two punts for 79 total yards, two punt returns for 42 yards and three kickoff returns for 47 yards.
There was Girard, who had six catches for 115 yards, including a reception on a slant pattern that he turned into a 78-yard gain to the Pine Forest 12-yard line with just under two minutes to play. Three plays later, he caught the winner.
There was junior running back Joquez Smith, who finished with 16 carries for 93 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion.
There was the entire defense — including linemen Peter Pesansky and Omarion Clark, linebackers Cottrill, Troy Bowles, Luke Arena and Wayne Quin, safety Wade Woodaz, defensive backs Andre Gilbert and Caleb Williams — who stepped up with a tremendous goal-line stand.
Trailing 29-27 with 11:04 remaining in the game, Jesuit’s defense faced first and goal from its 3-yard line against Pensacola’s brutal triple-option featuring bruising quarterback TJ Wilson (33 rushes, 171 yards). On the next four plays, however, Pine Forest gained 1, 1, 0 and 0 yards.
“That had to be the greatest goal line stand in Jesuit history,” Thompson said. “Against that offense and that quarterback it was incredible.”
Just as big was the play by Gilbert a few seconds earlier when he ran clear across the field and made a touchdown-saving tackle at the 3-yard line after Pine Forest returned the kickoff 86 yards.
The greatest comeback story of them all? That arguably has to go to 5-foot-10, 170-pound sophomore quarterback Luke Knight, who despite throwing four interceptions kept his cool and continued making big throws, ultimately finishing with 352 passing yards and three touchdowns.
“I always had faith in my teammates,” Knight said. “I always believed that we could pull it out.”
In the end, it was an historic victory on several fronts.
It not only snapped a 10-year state football title dry spell for the Tampa Bay area, but a 53-year drought for the Tigers, who last won in 1968.
On top of that, it completed a 15-0 record (Jesuit also came into the game ranked No. 10 in the nation by MaxPreps).
The victory puts the Tigers in the debate for the greatest team of all time from the Tampa Bay area: Only four other schools — Pasco (1992), Armwood (2003, 2004, 2011), Plant (2006) and Jefferson (2010) — have finished seasons with undefeated records since 1990 (Armwood did have to forfeit away victories in 2004 and 2011 for rules violations).
Jefferson finished the highest ever in the national MaxPreps polls at No. 8, though the Tigers could jump up a spot or two after Saturday’s victory.
One more distinction pushes the Tigers in the conversation: They are the only team from the Tampa Bay area to ever defeat Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, 24-21 in this season’s second game when the Raiders were ranked No. 4 in the country.
The Tigers’ victory also ended more than a week of state final frustration for Tampa Bay area teams. Last week in Tallahassee, Berkeley Prep lost 21-0 to Hollywood Chaminade Madonna in the 3A final and Friday night Tampa Bay Tech lost 42-14 to Aquinas in the 7A championship game.
The last time three football teams from the area reached championships was 2011 when Admiral Farragut, Armwood and Plant made it. The latter two won their finals, though Armwood eventually forfeited its championship for recruiting violations.
Hillsborough County also had three teams reach the pinnacle in 2010 when Jefferson, Plant and Armwood played for titles with only Jefferson (15-0) coming away victorious.