St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) athletic director George Smith was the Raiders’ head coach in 2008, and while he’s had plenty of talented teams, there’s little question the 2008 squad, which went 15-0 and won the state 5A title in a 56-7 rout of Lakeland, had that “it” factor.
“We were pretty good then,” Smith said. “The 2009 and 2010 teams were good too.”
Aquinas was loaded with talent that season, with nine players off that team playing in the NFL last season: Giovani Bernard, James White, Phillip Dorsett, Brandon Linder, Cody Riggs, Leonard Hankerson, Desmen Southward, Lamarcus Joyner, and Gabe Holmes. A 10th player from that team, then-backup quarterback Jake Rudock, was drafted this season.
According to a computer simulation provided by Ken Massey, the ’08 Raiders would have edged the 2013 St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) squad 55-49 for the championship. It was the Raiders’ fourth consecutive win by a touchdown or less in the Super 25 Battle of Champions tournament.
Dylan Drake, a senior lead on marketplace operations for Beepi, an online marketplace for buying and selling used cars, was a junior offensive lineman for the 2008 Raiders team who went on to play four years for Yale.
“There were some very good players at Yale, but I think the biggest difference at Aquinas is the athleticism was just on a different level,” Drake said.
He said two people made that 2008 team special: Smith and strength coach Rob Biasotti.
“Both were instrumental in getting everybody to play for each other,” Drake said. “With the workouts Biasotti had, we were in there starting in February, five days a week in the morning. Everyone was in it together. With Coach Smith, it was his message of family. We have this tradition at Aquinas where a lot of the alumni show up for the evening practice on Thanksgiving. A lot of it is like a class reunion.”
Linebacker Conor O’Neill went on from Aquinas to play alongside fellow Raiders James White and Dezmen Southward at Wisconsin. O’Neill played briefly as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears and is now a financial analyst for Oak Tree Capital Management in Los Angeles. He echoed Drake’s theme of team unity on the 2008 squad.
“One of the things that separated us is we had selfless guys,” O’Neill said. “Obviously, we had aspirations to play at the collegiate level, but we all wanted to play for each other. I would say that there wasn’t a point in the season where we thought that we would lose. Even when we were down at halftime against Elder, we all kind of just knew if we just did what we normally did, we would be fine. I think we were laid back because we knew the talent that we had.”
The top four teams in the final Super 25 rankings for the past eight years made the event for field of 32. The teams were seeded based on Ken Massey’s computer power rankings and the simulation was played multiple times to determine the results. Winners advanced until the ultimate champion was crowned.
MORE: How the first round went
MORE: How the semifinals went
Check out the full bracket below: