TAMPA — After reaching the state semifinals five of the past six seasons, Jesuit entered Friday’s marquee matchup in the unfamiliar role of underdog.
The Tigers were playing Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, a program steeped in championship tradition. Few thought the Raiders could lose.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the defending national champion which was currently ranked sixth in the country by MaxPreps, had too many high-caliber recruits, the experts said.
The Raiders were supposed to be too talented. Too explosive. Too much.
And Jesuit had too little time to prepare.
The game came together on Wednesday night after the Tigers and St. Thomas Aquinas each had games cancelled against other opponents.
But Jesuit didn’t listen – it believed – and the Tigers pulled off one of the biggest upsets in program history with a 24-21 victory.
“In my head coaching career, this is the best win ever,” said Tigers coach Matt Thompson, who previously was the defensive coordinator at Armwood.
Better still, Jesuit did it with some last minute panache.
Trailing 21-17, the Tigers got the stop they needed, forcing a punt. Jesuit’s final drive started at St. Thomas Aquinas’ 45-yard line with 1 minute, 45 seconds left. First-year starting quarterback Luke Knight made some key throws to get the Tigers within striking distance.
Then, with 20 seconds left, the drive — and a potential win — almost ended.
Knight threw an interception in the end zone, but the turnover was nullified because of pass interference.
Two plays later, Knight hit Wake Forest commit Jaydn Girard on a 9-yard touchdown with nine seconds left the winning score.
“I saw it,” Knight said about the pass pattern developing. “It was beautiful.”
The Tigers put themselves in a position to win by relying on a strong running game and an opportunistic defense that forced seven turnovers.
Joquez Smith ran for more than 100 yards in the first half, including a 42-yard burst for a score that gave Jesuit a 10-7 lead. The biggest turnover came when A.J. Cottrill pried the ball loose from the running back and scooped it up for a touchdown with eight seconds left to go into halftime ahead 17-14.
“I saw the running back and just knocked it out,” Cottrill said. “The ball just bounced up in my hands and I was gone.”
The big plays by the defense were needed to offset the playmaking ability of Raiders running back Xavier Terrell, a three-star recruit who transferred from IMG Academy. Terrell scored all three of St. Thomas Aquinas’ touchdowns on a pair of runs and a reception, all of which were big plays.
The Tigers bent. But they never completely broke down.
It all added to a memorable win that gives Jesuit much-needed confidence against powerhouse programs from Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Each of those state semifinal appearances ended with losses to programs from those two cities. Being on the verge of a championship has helped the Tigers gain some notoriety. After all, they were ranked 55th nationally by MaxPreps heading into Friday’s game, the highest among Tampa Bay area teams.
Now, Jesuit is poised to rocket up the rankings after a signature win, one that could eventually help them clear that one last barrier to win what has been an elusive state title.
“I feel like this definitely proves what we can do this year,” Cottrill said.