By: Alex Marvez
Published Sunday, December 20, 1992
GAINESVILLE Senior cornerback Derrick Irvin ranted and raved to his defensive teammates Saturday after St. Thomas Aquinas High School's 24-9 victory over Tallahassee Leon in the state Class 4A championship game.
"We earned our respect!" he screamed. "We earned it, baby!"
It's difficult to believe that the Raiders (14-0) hadn't earned respect before the state final, having recorded three shutouts and holding four other teams to a touchdown or less. But to Irvin the glue of the Raiders' stingy secondary Saturday other Broward County schools garnered more prestige because St. Thomas is a private school.
Not any more.
"We had no respect in Broward County," Irvin said. "All I heard down there is, "You can't win the big one. Y'all can't stop the pass." We stopped the pass. We stopped everything."
At the Raiders stopped everything when it mattered. Leon got 18 first downs and 257 yards of total offense, including drives of 16 and 18 plays.
But St. Thomas forced two turnovers, had six sacks, and stopped the Lions on a crucial fourth-down play in the fourth quarter. That helped the Raiders maintain a 10-3 lead until their offense posted two touchdowns in the final five minutes.
"The defense was fine," said linebacker Terry Smith, who recorded one interception and one fumble recovery. "The offense, I don't know. They got stopped a little at the beginning, but they brought it back together. Because we weren't going to make the same mistake as last year."
That "mistake" was a lousy defensive performance against Fort Walton Beach's run-and-shoot offense in last year's state final, a 39-14 St. Thomas loss. This year, St. Thomas was well prepared for Leon's pro-style, shotgun offense.
On most plays, the Raiders used four defensive backs and dropped as many as eight players in coverage. That confused Leon quarterback Justin Whitfield, who had 188yards passing but was constantly pressured and rushed for negative 17 yards on 15 attempts.
"Last year, we didn't have any pressure from the outside," said defensive tackle Wayne Blair, who had 21/2 sacks. "So we just changed it around. This year, they had me on the outside. We ran a three-man line sometimes."
The Lions moved successfully when mixing the run and pass, driving 68 yards to St. Thomas' 15-yard line early in the fourth quarter. After three incomplete passes, Leon decided to skip the field-goal attempt and go for the first down.
No dice. A shove pass to Sylvester Jones on the short side of the field was sniffed out by linebackers Willie Wright and Matt Gulla, who stopped him after a four-yard gain.
"At first, I thought they were going to throw the slant to No. 24 [Maurice Thomas]," Wright said. "But when he reverse-countered, I knew it was the shovel pass. I just ran over there."
When Leon drove inside the Raiders' five-yard line trailing, 24-3, with less than three minutes to play, St. Thomas defensive coordinator Carl Lambert yelled, "Suck it up! Have some pride!" The Lions scored on a two-yard run by Jones, but it didn't matter.
This group already had it.
"People didn't think we would make it this far," Irvin said. "They said we were going to be out by the second playoff game. We proved them wrong. We earned respect."