St. Thomas Aquinas has been nearly unstoppable over the last decade. The Raiders are searching for their third consecutive state title and 10th all-time. But first, they’ll have to take down the visiting Venice Indians (12-0) in Friday’s Class 7A state semifinal.
Venice is looking to for its second state title in program history and first since a 15-0 season 16 years ago.
St. Thomas Aquinas has been tough to beat on its home field at Brian Piccolo Memorial Stadium. The Raiders boast an impressive 35-4 record at home dating back to 2010.
The two losses by St. Thomas Aquinas this season came to the top team in the nation Las Vegas Bishop Gorman 25-24 in triple overtime and a 27-23 loss to Booker T. Washington in the opening week. The Raiders are averaging 40 points per game while allowing only 8.5 points per game.
Venice is averaging nearly 50 points per game on offense while giving up just 11.4 points per game. The Indians are a well deserving of this state semifinal appearance.
How they got here:
St. Thomas Aquinas beat Mater Academy Charter 50-10. Venice took down East Lake 43-14.
Raiders senior quarterback Jake Allen receives all the attention with his 21 touchdown passes. The UF commit is a tremendous pocket passer at his 6’3″, 200 lb frame.
His biggest playmakers on offense are fellow seniors, running back Mike Epstein (15 touchdowns) and wide receiver Josh Palmer (7 touchdowns). Epstein is an Illinois commit while Palmer is headed to Syracuse.
The two continue to make plays for St. Thomas Aquinas. In talking with Palmer this week, he told me he’s expecting a great game considering both teams have made it this far.
“We respect every team we go up against so we are not going to treat this team any different,” Palmer said. “St Thomas Aquinas football has played every game with a state championship effort, so not many adjustments have to be made within this group of guys.”
As for the visiting team, Venice boasts an offense led by junior dual-threat quarterback Bryce Carpenter (31 touchdowns).
Senior running back Matthew “Speedy” Laroche has done everything on the ground this year with just over 2,700 yards and 37 touchdowns. He holds offers from Southern Illinois, Old Dominion among many. Laroche and Carpenter feed off one another in the backfield. Carpenter’s favorite target in the passing game is junior Jaivon Heiligh (9 touchdowns).
“We are going to focus on what’s been successful for us this year,” Carpenter said. “We are going to have a great week of practice and go out and compete Friday night.”
Even though both team’s records are insanely impressive with just two losses combined, they aren’t looking at those things.
St. Thomas Aquinas ranks No. 9 overall in the nation according to MaxPreps. Palmer says his team doesn’t pay attention because “records don’t win games.”
“Right now our ranking nationally is not our priority right now, it’s winning this game,” Palmer said. “Coach [Roger] Harriott wants us to have a clear understanding what we have to do and focus on getting it done.”
Carpenter had a similar thought process for him and his group.
“We just take it one week at a time and can’t look back and rely on what we have already accomplished,” he said.
The Raiders offense is a versatile one under offensive coordinator Ryan Schneider. Palmer talked says this offense gets all 11 guys involved.
“He [Schneider] has always been dynamic and it gives everyone on the offense the opportunity to make a play,” Palmer said. “This offense does not revolve around one individual right now. With or without me, this offense would succeed.”
Venice is averaging 54.3 points per game the last three weeks and has taken control of every game so far this postseason. Carpenter talked about his offense being able to hang with the best of them.
“We have dynamic playmakers on our team but more importantly, we are a close-knit group who play for one another,” he said.
It is hard to ever pick against St. Thomas Aquinas especially on its home turf. Venice comes to town red hot and you never know what can happen.
Both teams will be prepared for a battle. The Raiders defense is just as lethal as their offense with junior Coleman Crozier (10 sacks) and junior Asante Samuel (2 interceptions).
A pair of sophomores have shined defensively for Venice with Carson Sullivan (7 sacks) and Noah Carr (4 interceptions).
The three-headed monster of Allen, Epstein and Palmer will try to give the Indians defense fits while Carpenter, Laroche and Heiligh will do the same against St. Thomas Aquinas.
It’s going to be a good one between two highly athletic and gritty 7A squads. We know St. Thomas Aquinas is physical, evident by its all-out brawl two weeks ago against Dillard.
Can Vernice keep up with that intensity on the road?
Photo credit: Pledge It
Jake Perper is the scout for Prep Sports Scouting. Make sure to follow along for all the updates on Twitter: @JakePerper.
If you have any questions or comments feel free to write below or email Jake at firstname.lastname@example.org.