Lakeland vs. St. Thomas Aquinas: A championship game rivalry like no other in Florida historyDecember 7, 2018 2:46pm

Dec. 07--LAKELAND -- MaxPreps lists Friday night's Class 7A state championship game between Lakeland and St. Thomas Aquinas as one of the top 10 games in the nation.

It's hard to imagine another game having as much history.

When the teams take the field at 8 p.m. at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, it will be the renewal of a rare championship rivalry between two of the premier football programs in the state.

Friday's game will be the sixth meeting between the teams in a championship. They've met two other times in regional finals.

So does that qualify as a rivalry?

"Probably, because I don't think there's been anybody who has matched up with them as many times as we have throughout the years," Lakeland coach Bill Castle said. "We should have a big crowd."

No other two teams have met as many times in the final. Belle Glade Glades Day and Baker have met five times but not since 1985.

Powerhouse legacies

Both teams have national reputations. Earlier this year, MaxPreps ranked Aquinas' George Smith, who is now the athletic director, 12th and Castle 19th in its list of the top 50 all-time high school coaches in the nation.

MaxPreps also ranked Lakeland's 2005 team as the 21st-best high school team all-time and Aquinas' 2008 and 2010 teams 30th and 32nd, respectively.

When the FHSAA celebrated Florida's first 100 years of high school football in 2007, Castle was selected coach of the century and Smith was a finalist.

This is the first time the teams have met since 2008, when Aquinas routed Lakeland, 56-7. Prior to that game, Lakeland had dominated the matchup. The Dreadnaughts were 4-0 in the final with wins in 1996 and 2004-06 and 5-1 overall. Lakeland lost to Aquinas, 25-22, in the '97 regional final then beat Aquinas, 31-27, in the '98 regional final.

Although the regional final games were close, all the state championship games were one-sided -- the winning team holding at least a 24-point margin of victory -- with the exception of 2006. Even that game, however, was on its way to a one-sided finish with Lakeland leading 21-0 after three quarters and 35-14 with less than thee minutes to play before the wild finish that saw Lakeland prevail in double-overtime 45-42.

The big surprise for Castle was in 2004 when his defense held the Raiders to less than 100 yards of offense.

"That was a little bit of a surprise," Castle said. "But all of them surprised me, the ones we won big. But that's the way playoffs are. Like the other night, we played that team (Edgewater) that I thought was really going to give us fits. But that third quarter, it got away from them, and then they got rattled. That can happen in the playoffs.

"All the teams are there because they won all year long. Then all of a sudden you face adversity and they crumble and the scores get bigger than they normally would. That happens a lot in the playoffs."

The 2006 game, of course, was the most memorable game in the rivalry.

"That game was probably the most exciting game ever played in the state finals," Smith said.

Smith was the longtime coach who built Aquinas into a state power. He started there as head coach in 1975, a year before Castle got to Lakeland, and led the Raiders to six of their 10 state titles and two national championships.

Balance of power

There's no doubt that the balance of power between the two schools has shifted since Lakeland last won a state title.

When the 1990s ended, the teams had three state titles each. After 2006, Lakeland had a 6-3 lead over Aquinas in state titles, and the Dreadnaughts were tied for second in football championships.

Since 2006, Aquinas won seven more state titles and now is second overall to Jacksonville Bolles. The Raiders' victory over Lakeland was perhaps the sweetest of Smith's state finals.

"I'm not going to B.S. you," he said. "That was a great victory for our football program."

Since 2006, the Dreadnaughts have dropped to a tie for eighth in overall state championships but still have more state titles than any other big public school.

"Any time, I don't care if it's '96 or '04, '05, '06, any time you win the state, it's kind of a big deal, especially for public schools to win it," Castle said. "Look at the lower classifications, all the private schools dominate. Of course, St. Thomas, it has always ran through them for a while."

'All Power 5 athletes'

So what's the difference in Aquinas now compared with the 1996-2006 squads?

"They're getting more and more every year, the dominating athletes," Castle said. "They always had them at the skill (positions). Now they get them on the defensive side. They're playing with all Power 5 athletes on defense."

Smith did not disagree with that assessment. It's certainly evident in the number of players that have gone on to the NFL. Aquinas has 35 players who have played in the NFL, including 16 current players. Lakeland has had 11 players, including three current players.

This year, the University of Miami coaches visited Lakeland the day after visiting Aquinas and told Castle that the Raiders have 20 Power 5 prospects, which is one reason they are ranked No. 7 in the country by USA Today.

"It's going to be a challenge for us, but our kids embrace the challenge," Castle said.

___

(c)2018 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)

Visit The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) at www.theledger.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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