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St. Thomas Aquinas aiming for record fifth consecutive state football title. Who else in Broward could shine?

St. Thomas Aquinas coach Roger Harriott was soft-spoken at the Broward County Athletic Association’s media day. He wasn’t jittery, antsy or oozing with energy like so many other high school football coaches.

For the head of a program that’s won four consecutive state championships and 27 straight games, it’s a bit surprising. Instead, it’s a calm confidence. A trust in his own abilities and the talent of his players and coaching staff to stay on top of the Class 3M mountaintop.

And just like in years past, Aquinas returns loads of talented players.

Harriott listed almost every single starter when asked about his star players for this upcoming season.

“Standout players, that would mean my roster,” he said.

Among the many: four-star running backs Jordan Lyle (Ohio State commit) and Stacy Gage (UCF commit), four-star wide receivers James Madison II (Mizzou commit) and Chance Robinson (Miami commit), three-star defensive lineman Justin Bodford (Mizzou commit), three-star linebacker Nicholas Rodriguez (Mizzou commit), three-star safeties Ryan Mack (Miami commit) and Allen Bryant (Pittsburgh commit), three-star cornerback Romanas Frederique Jr. (Miami commit) and three-star kicker/punter Michael Kern (Texas commit).

With all that talent spread across Aquinas, Harriott doesn’t see one particular weakness on his team. And when asked where he sees the biggest improvement from last season, it comes from an intangible element rather than a particular skill.

“The seniors that just recently graduated, they did a good job of impressing upon our team the importance of accountability and being your brother’s keeper,” Harriott said. “I thought that was an area that was stressed and they made some strides. This next group is going to pick up where they left off and continue to build.”

Aquinas won all 14 of last year’s games by at least 11 points, with an average margin of victory at 31.6. They are also only one of six schools in history to win four consecutive state championships. Nobody has ever reached five.

So, who — at least in Broward County — could possibly knock Aquinas off its throne? And who else in the county is a team worth keeping an eye on?

Blanche Ely: Sustained success or a flash in the pan?

Blanche Ely went on a magical run last fall, turning a one-win 2021 season into a 10-1 response with a trip to the regional final. Michael Bailey enters his third season as head coach after he inherited the program in May 2021 with only seven players combined on the varsity and junior varsity rosters.

Last season, Bailey said, was a combination of strong coaching and players buying into the system. Blanche Ely was also led by a stout defense that allowed just 10.8 points per game, including four shutouts. Aquinas rang up 35 points on that defense in the regional final, but that was the third-lowest it scored all year.

Bailey calls this season “statement ‘24”, a motto the team is rallying behind to prove that last year’s spark was not lightning in a bottle. He believes a state championship this year truly is attainable.

“Last year was definitely a warmup, but we are still learning each other and getting to know each other,” Bailey said.

Monarch: How far can star quarterback A.J. Hairston go?

Monarch rebounded from a .500 campaign with a 9-3 record and a trip to the regional semifinal. A lot of it came on the shoulders of quarterback A.J. Hairston, the Sun Sentinel’s Broward 3M-4M offensive player of the year.

Hairston returns for his senior year with the goal of making a run at the 4M title. The UMass commit threw for 3,217 yards and 32 touchdowns last year, while also adding 350 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

He’s only played quarterback for two years, leaving no sign of what his limit may be.

Better yet, two of Hairston’s top targets are returning this year in junior Samari Reed and sophomore Jabari Brady. Both of them have received offers from Power 5 schools. Plus, Monarch grabbed Stoneman Douglas transfer Clayton Cannon II, who plays both receiver and cornerback.

Monarch coach Calvin Davis believes those three could be the makings of the top receiving core in the county. He also said Hairston has made strides in many areas over the last year.

“I think from a leadership standpoint, he’s improved so much that you’re gonna see a lot of growth this season,” Davis said. “I see a lot of improvement in all areas and I just think we’re gonna be a much better team because he’s grown so much over the past year.”

Chaminade-Madonna: Can a loaded offense lead to a third straight 1M title?

Chaminade-Madonna made it two consecutive state championships last year and should be in the running to complete the trifecta this year.

It all starts with the offense, which is stacked with Power 5 commitments at wide receiver, running back and quarterback.

The question will be on defense, which experiences more turnover. However, four-star Zaquan Patterson returns, who is ranked as one of the top safeties in the country. He’ll be the star of the defense, which last year posted six shutouts, including a mid-season streak that lasted four games.

The last time the Lions didn’t reach the state championship game was in 2015. Dameon Jones became coach at the Hollywood school after that season, and they have won five titles under his stewardship including a three-peat from 2017-19.

Cardinal Gibbons: Can NFL experience bring them over the top?

After winning back-to-back state titles in 2020 and 2021, Cardinal Gibbons fell in the regional final last fall. Now, coach Matt DuBuc is hoping some NFL assistance can help bring them back to the winner’s circle.

Former Dolphins coach Adam Gase isn’t officially on the coaching staff, but is an advisor to the program, serving as an extra outlet of insight. He joins defensive line coach Andre Carter, a 13-year NFL defensive end who also was an NFL assistant coach under Gase.

DuBuc said he likes where his offense is at, led by three-star quarterback and North Carolina commit Michael Merdinger and three-star tight end and Georgia commit Colton Heinrich. However, the defense is still searching for its identity and could be the determinant in how far Cardinal Gibbons goes.

American Heritage: 27 seniors depart, so how quickly can they adapt?

Over half of American Heritage’s roster has departed, but that hasn’t drained the fuel stemming from last year. American Heritage lost 38-31 to Miami Central in the 2M championship and is hungry for revenge.

“Obviously, it’s driven us, but I gotta remind these guys all the time that it’s a process and it’s a step-by-step process,” American Heritage coach Mike Smith said. “You don’t get to start in the state game. We got to go through that whole gauntlet again.”

Still, American Heritage boasts an uber-talented roster with a mix of homegrown players and transfers. Sophomore Malachi Toney, a wide receiver already with numerous offers from top Power 5 programs, headlines the returnees. Plus, four starting offensive linemen return.

The challenge for Smith will be meshing it all together into a product that can knock off Miami Central, who’s going for its fifth consecutive state championship.

“I’m excited about the team because I feel like we do have a talented group,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of questions that gotta be answered once we start playing.”

Blanche Ely
Blanche Ely players celebrate their 19-14 win over host Dillard in the Region 3-3M semifinal in November. Gary Curreri/Contributor
AJ Hairston
John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel
Monarch quarterback AJ Hairston is the defending large-schools offensive player of the year. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)


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