By: Steve Wyche
Perfection: St. Thomas wins title
GAINESVILLE St. Thomas Aquinas' 24-9 victory over Tallahassee Leon in Saturday's state 4A championship game typified the play of the Raiders' perfect season.
Every player, even reserves like defensive back/wide receiver Billy Brown who iced the game with a 59-yard reverse in the waning moments, came up big for St. Thomas.
It was as complete a victory make that a season as any coach or player could imagine.
The dominant triumph over the state's all-time playoff-bound team epitomized the Raiders' 14-0 season and their No. 1 spot atop the state poll from the beginning of the season to its end.
"Mission accomplished," said senior wideout Derrick Irvin, who caught three passes for 27 yards and made several key defensive plays from his cornerback position.
"We have so much talent on this team, it wouldn't surprise me if we came back and won it next year. But we're more than winners on the field. We're winners in the game of life."
The victory was redeeming for St. Thomas, which got drilled, 39-14, by Fort Walton Beach in last year's 4A final. It also was especially sweet for Coach George Smith, who won his first title in his 18years at the Raiders' helm.
"Being No. 1 from start to finish says something in itself," Smith said. "That shows you what kind of kids we have."
St. Thomas becomes just the third Class 4A team and the fourth program from Broward to win a state championship. Dillard won 4A titles in 1986 and 1989 before moving up to Class 5A last year. Hollywood Hills won the 4A championship in 1973.
Westminster Academy brought the county's only Class 1A state champion trophy home in 1990.
"We knew in our hearts what we came up here to prove," said St. Thomas running back Daryl Porter, who blocked a punt and rushed for 12 yards on six carries. "We came to prove everybody in Broward wrong. We had to show people in Broward that we could come up here and win."
The Raiders came into the game with concerns about whether they would be able to stop Leon's potent passing game. St. Thomas also knew it had to play from start to finish, as Leon had come back seven times this season to win.
Mission accomplished on both counts. Leon quarterback Justin Whitfield, an excellent scrambler and poised passer, did complete 15 of 31 pass attempts for 188 yards. But St. Thomas kept the Lions (11-3) out of the end zone until Sylvester Jones scored on a two-yard run in the final minutes.
"I never doubted that we could come back," said Leon Coach Jim Sauls, whose teams have been to the playoffs a record 15 times. "I felt if we played them close at all, we would have a chance if we didn't make mistakes."
Well, the Lions did, and the breakdowns proved fatal.
St. Thomas, led by Wayne Blair, Jim Palmer, Terry Smith, Mike DelliCarpini and Brian Sadowski, sacked Whitfield six times, twice stopping impressive drives. The Lions also allowed a blocked punt and an interception and turned the ball over twice on fumbles, one leading to a St. Thomas touchdown.
Even when they were down, 10-3, in the third quarter, the Lions' offense appeared in control. It mounted a 17-play drive that started at the Lions' 17, but on fourth and 10 from St. Thomas' 15, the Raiders' defense held, took possession, and broke Leon's will.
On the ensuring possession, St. Thomas scored on brown's 59-yard reverse, which capped an 89-yard drive in nine plays.
"This team is unbelievable," said running back Keith Wilkerson, who gained 97 yards on 15 carries and scored twice. "We do things I don't think any other team in the state can do."
Wilkerson, who gave St. Thomas a 7-3 halftime lead on a 24-yard run in the second quarter, scored the Raiders' final touchdown on a 30-yard run, which followed a fumbled kickoff by Leon after Brown's score.
Leon took the lead on its opening possession on a 34-yard field goal by Greg Madsen. After Wilkerson's second-quarter score, Alex Baader kicked a 22-yard field goal to make it 10-3.
"We have so many good people that not everybody gets recognized," linebacker Terry Smith said. "But we always said the cream would rise to the top, and we did."