On a magical, unforgettable Saturday night in Fort Lauderdale, the Jesuit football team, in most dramatic fashion, captured the State Championship!
Jesuit 35, Pensacola Pine Forest 29.
Pushed to the brink and seemingly beyond, the Tigers dug deeper than ever before and rallied from down 29-14 to score the game's final 21 points and complete a perfect season – 15-0!
Running back Joquez Smith '23 scored the Tigers' first two TDs and Junior Vandeross '22 the next two on spectacular pass plays in front of a massive throng of Jesuit supporters at DRV PNK Stadium. Then, trailing 29-27 with time winding down, the same duo who combined to knock off national powerhouse Ft. Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the final seconds back in September did it again. Jaydn Girard '22 took a short pass from Luke Knight '24 and rocketed 79 yards down the sideline to the Pine Forest 10 yard line. Three plays later, Knight rolled out and found Girard in the back of the end zone with 37 seconds remaining for a 35-29 lead, sending the Jesuit faithful into a frenzy.
Meanwhile, the defense had two incredible 4th quarter goal-line stands. On the first, Wayne Quin '22, Troy Bowles '23 and teammates stuffed Pine Forest on 4th and a foot. Later, with just two minutes to go in the game, Pine Forest was up 29-27 and poised to score the clinching TD at the Jesuit 3-yard line. However, Hayes Greep '22 darted in front of the receiver in the end zone to make a sensational interception, setting up Girard's heroics.
A.J. Cottrill '22 iced the win with an interception at midfield with 27 seconds to go, unleashing a torrent of hugging and hollering and elation, a wild celebration of the school's first football State Championship in 53 years. The Tigers, nationally ranked since the St. Thomas Aquinas win, are in the Top 10 nationally in both the MaxPreps and USA Today final rankings, finishing at No. 8 in both polls.
(Homepage photo by Scott Purks of the Tampa Bay Times. For many more photos from the game, go to the Facebook pages Jesuit High School of Tampa and Jesuit High School Football - Tampa, and for more news, information and videos go to the Jesuit football Twitter account.)
Every year, on the anniversary of their 1968 State Championship, the members of the Jesuit Tigers title-winning football squad get together and celebrate.
For 52 years, they were the only ones – the lone Jesuit football team to win State.
That all changed Saturday. On a historic evening with many members of that 1968 team in attendance along with two busloads of Blue Tide, the Jesuit Pep Band and cheerleaders, and legions of alumni, family, and friends, the Tigers claimed their second State title. Ninth-year head coach Matt Thompson joins Bill Minahan as Jesuit's championship coaches, and Thompson stands alone as the head coach of the only perfect season in Jesuit annals: 15 wins, 0 losses.
Saturday in Fort Lauderdale, and all season long, there were stars were all over the field. With 16 senior starters, the Tigers were unstoppable in 2021. In the locker room before the game, Thompson told the Tigers this was the best senior class in his 30 years of coaching.
The senior starters on offense: G Tre'Quan Alexander, FB Liam Conroy, WR Carter French, WR Jaydn Girard, C Charles Mcleod, T Gozy Okeke, G Jonah Tran, and WR Junior Vandeross.
The senior starters on defense: ILB Connor Charest, NT Omarion Clark, ILB A.J. Cottrill, CB Hayes Greep, DE Mikey Leonardo, OLB Wayne Quin, S Wade Woodaz, and S Caleb Williams.
Those seniors were bolstered by standouts on offense such as RB Joquez Smith '23, QB Luke Knight '24, T Cayden Fluker '23, WR Jarriett Buie '23, and WR Bryson Goodwin '24, and on defense by national recruit OLB Troy Bowles '23, CB Andre Gilbert '23, DE Peter Pesansky '24, and key defensive reserves LB Luke Arena '23, S Kevin Doherty '23, LB Daniel Fuentes '22, CB Willy Suarez '24, LB Drew Woodaz '24, and DE R.J. McCullough '24.
After the State Semifinal win on Dec. 3, the coaching staff, led by defensive coordinator Darrell Palmer and offensive coordinator Don Mesick, had an extra week to develop the game plan for the Dec. 18 title game.
Palmer and Thompson were tasked with slowing a unique and powerful Pine Forest ground attack that had generated 3,500 rushing yards in 13 games. In the 4th quarter Saturday, when it mattered most, the defense barricaded the end zone. First, a long kickoff return put Pine Forest at the Jesuit 3-yard line. The Tigers stuffed them on downs.
Then, a Jesuit turnover put Pine Forest in prime position again later in the 4th quarter. On 3rd down from the 3 yard line, the Eagles tried to sneak in a pass, and that's when Greep made the game-altering interception in the end zone, setting up the Knight-to-Girard heroics: first the 79-yard catch-and-run, and then the 7-yard TD completion with 37 seconds remaining that won the Class 6A State Championship.
Jesuit football has been highly successful under Thompson, winning 99 games in nine seasons, including a 52-6 record the past four seasons with this superlative senior class.
But one huge hurdle tripped up the Tigers again and again: a State Semifinal road trip to south Florida. In 2016 the Tigers lost at Plantation American Heritage, 21-14. Three more times, in 2018 (at Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons), 2019 (at Miami Northwestern), and 2020 (at American Heritage again, on a field goal on the final play) Jesuit would lose road games vs. Broward or Dade County powerhouse programs in the State Semifinal. Those teams all would go on to win State.
But not this year, not this group of Tigers. In February, the entire team started arriving at the Oliva Weight Room in the Tigers' Den at 6:00am daily for workouts. In September, Jesuit sent shockwaves across the national prep football landscape with the stunning upset of national superpower St. Thomas Aquinas, a perennial national Top 10 program and 12-time State Champion that had entered the game ranked No. 6 nationally by MaxPreps. With 9 seconds to go vs. STA, down 21-17 and Corral Memorial Stadium rocking, Knight hit Girard with the winning score. Final: Jesuit 24, St. Thomas Aquinas 21.
Jesuit ripped through the rest of its schedule and first three playoff games unchallenged – the Tigers outscored their 15 opponents in 2021 by 568-126 – climbing the national rankings while on a collision course with Miami Northwestern in the State Semifinal. Only this time the game would be played in the friendly confines of Corral Memorial Stadium instead of in south Florida.
The Tigers walloped Northwestern 37-12, smashing years of State Semifinal frustration. Meanwhile, Pine Forest won its semifinal over Orlando Jones, 20-13, to enter the championship game with a 12-game winning streak.
On Saturday, Jesuit led early on the two Smith rushing TDs, but Pine Forest grinded out a long drive late in the first half. The Eagles converted two risky fourth downs along the way, and they scored with 12 seconds to go, made a 2-point conversion and led for the first time, 15-14, heading into halftime. Pine Forest would hold the lead all the way until Girard's TD with 37 seconds to go.
Smith finished the championship game with 16 carries for 93 yards and 2 touchdowns (he also made a 2-point conversion after Jesuit's winning touchdown). The two scores give Smith 30 TDs on the season, which is No. 2 in school history behind Malik Davis '17's 33 TDs in 2016, and it is 2nd in Florida this season, behind only O.J. Ross of Class 4A State runner-up Cocoa (37). Smith finished 2021 with 235 carries for 1,976 yards (8.4 avg). He has 56 career touchdowns in three seasons at Jesuit, putting him within striking distance of Davis' Hillsborough County record of 84.
Vandeross had 6 catches for 185 yards and 2 TDs. Included were several monster plays – a weaving 63-yarder that set up the game's first TD; a 50-yard bomb over the top from Knight that cut the deficit to 29-20 late in the 3rd quarter; and what was arguably the game's most spectacular play, one that will be etched in the minds of Jesuit football fans for years along with Girard's final two plays. In the 4th quarter, Vandeross took a swing pass and juked around or ran through multiple defenders en route to a 28-yard score that cut the deficit to 29-27.
Vandeross finished 2021 with 53 catches for 932 yards (17.6 avg.) and 15 TDs (10 receiving, 5 on returns). He averaged an amazing 24.7 yards per punt return this season.
Three days before the championship game vs. Pine Forest, in the middle of the week, six Jesuit seniors signed to play college football at a signing ceremony in the Tiger Palace. Famously, 53 years earlier almost to the day, the star of Jesuit's 1968 State Champions, Leonard George '69, became the first African-American to sign to play football at the University of Florida – exactly three days before he led Jesuit to the State title.
School president Fr. Richard C. Hermes, S.J. spoke at the signing ceremony about this, encouraging the 2021 Tigers to follow in George's legacy and finish the job with a State Championship three days later.
With George and at least a dozen of his 1968 teammates in attendance Saturday in Fort Lauderdale, the Tigers did it. Mission accomplished.