FORT LAUDERDALE — All season long, Jesuit dealt with its share of adversity.
The defending Class 6A champion had many hurdles to clear during a pedestrian-like 6-4 regular season that saw the Tigers lose starting quarterback Luke Knight, who transferred out midseason.
But through it all, head coach Matt Thompson kept his kids focused on the task at hand as they rolled to three straight postseason wins.
But they also knew they had a huge task in front of them Friday night as they traveled to South Florida to take on the winningest program in the state.
St. Thomas Aquinas has won more state titles than any other school (13), including the past three seasons, is ranked No. 7 in the nation by Max Preps and has not lost a postseason game on its home field in 19 years.
Jesuit came out with plenty of energy to start, but eventually the sheer talent of St. Thomas Aquinas rose to the surface and paved the way for a lopsided 45-3 Raiders victory in a Class 3M semifinal.
“We knew what we had in front of us (Friday) going up against a team like St. Thomas, but it just wasn’t our night and sometimes it just goes that way,” Thompson said. “But that doesn’t take anything away from our kids. I’m proud of them. They never quit (Friday). We were just a little bit outclassed by a great team.”
The Tigers, who were making their fifth consecutive appearance in a state semifinal, looked as if they might be able to stand toe-to-toe with Aquinas as the first quarter wound down and the game was still scoreless.
But Aquinas, thanks to a wind-aided, 64-yard punt, broke through with just over a minute left in the quarter. Jesuit’s Andre Gilbert tried to field the ball at his own 5-yard line but couldn’t handle it. He retrieved the ball in the end zone and tried to run it out, but only made it to the 1 before fumbling again. The ball rolled into the end zone, and the Raiders fell on the ball for a 7-0 lead.
The Tigers responded with their best drive of the night when freshman quarterback Will Griffin drove from his team from its 20 to the Aquinas 33. With a strong wind at his team’s back, Thompson sent the field goal team in, and Jack Ferreri drilled a 50-yard attempt through the uprights with room to spare.
That was about the last thing that went right for the Tigers (9-5).
The Aquinas offense answered with a 12-play, 80 yard drive, capped by Jordan Lyle’s 4-yard touchdown run 4:55 before halftime.
Four plays after Lyle’s score, Griffin fired deep down the middle, but Aquinas safety King Mack had a perfect read and picked the ball off. He then rambled 70 yards to the end zone for a 21-3 lead.
It looked like St. Thomas Aquinas would go into the halftime locker room with an even larger lead, but S.J. Green managed to pick off a pass in the end zone with 40 seconds left, keeping Jesuit’s deficit at 18.
But any hopes of a Tigers comeback went out the door when Mack took the second-half kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown, making it 28-3.
An Aquinas field goal late in the third quarter made it 38-3 and started a running clock. The Raiders added insult to injury with four minutes left when a fake punt turned into a 44-yard touchdown run.
“Give credit to Aquinas, they came out tonight and took it to us,” said Griffin, who finished 11-for-25 for 90 yards. “But I’m still proud of our team and the season we had. This year was a tough ride for all of us, but I feel like we worked hard to get as far as we did. I’m looking forward to getting back at it next year.”