By Christy Cabrera Chirinos, Sun Sentinel
The Panthers chased down St. Thomas Aquinas’ quarterbacks and forced 3 turnovers to help Dwyer earn a 6-3 win over the Raiders in a highly-anticipated Class 7A regional championship game.
The win sends Dwyer to a state semifinal showdown with Bradenton Manatee, which advanced with a 13-10 victory over Fort Pierce Central.
“Our defense was unbelievable. If it weren’t for those guys, I wouldn’t be the quarterback I am today,” said Dwyer quarterback Faton Bauta, who had 31 carries for 74 yards and completed 12 of 17 passes for 106 yards with the Panthers’ lone touchdown. “This was our biggest hill, I like to say, in our postseason. We got over it as a team.”
For St. Thomas, which hasn’t missed the state semifinals since 2003, the loss meant the end of a tumultuous season that saw offensive struggles, injuries to key players and two regular-season losses to Broward County opponents.
On this night, the Raiders (10-3) again struggled to move the ball, totaling just 145 yards of offense.
Their lone score was a 43-yard field goal by Nolan Bieck late in the first half that gave St. Thomas a 3-0 lead that held until late in the fourth.
That’s when Bauta and Dwyer (12-1) put together their most impressive drive of the night.
The Panthers took over on their own 8-yard line with 10:38 remaining in the game and marched down the field methodically behind six Bauta carries and five completions, including a 4-yarder to a wide-open Nick Gonzalez in the end zone with 4:43 left.
“I just ran a hitch, I got a step on the inside,” an emotional Gonzalez said after the game. “I know I have to step up my game.”
But even with the late Dwyer score, St. Thomas still had its chances late.
The Raiders blocked the extra point and forced a Bauta fumble that was recovered by Joseph Bosa inside the game’s final 1:30.
That’s when the Panther defense turned up the pressure again.
Dwyer blitzed, forcing a five-yard loss on St. Thomas’ first play of its final possession.
After that came three straight incompletions, leaving the Raiders well short of Bieck’s range for a potential game-tying field goal.
“Any other school gets to a regional final, they’re ecstatic,” said St. Thomas coach Rocco Casullo. “The bar is raised at St. Thomas Aquinas. Does it hurt? Yeah. But I’m proud of these guys. The breaks didn’t go our way.”