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May 8, 2012
It's getting to be a yearly tradition at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.
Contend for a state championship in the fall. Watch a couple of former players get drafted in the spring.
The growing fraternity of St. Thomas Aquinas alumni in the pro ranks added a couple of members last week when the Baltimore Ravens selected South Carolina State safety Christian Thompson in the fourth round and the Green Bay Packers picked Florida State offensive tackle Andrew Datko in the seventh round.
A total of eight St. Thomas Aquinas players have been drafted over the last five years. No other high school in the country had more than five players selected during that same stretch.
They've succeeded at the next level by following a St. Thomas Aquinas motto: You go, we go. The idea behind the slogan is that if each person does his part and works his tail off, the entire team will operate with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine.
"I think some of those guys have carried on some of that stuff to college," said St. Thomas Aquinas athletic director George Smith, who ended his 34-year tenure as the school's football coach in Feburary 2011. "I know some of these kids have turned out to be great leaders."
They've also turned developed into great winners.
St. Thomas Aquinas captured state championships in 1992, 1997, 1999, 2007, 2008 and 2010. The 2008 team finished atop the RivalsHigh national rankings. That makes St. Thomas Aquinas arguably the best football program in perhaps the best state for producing future pros.
Although this wasn't a good draft for Florida's major college powers, a look at the high school backgrounds of every player drafted over the last five years reveals that the Sunshine State remains a hotbed for pro football talent.
One of the major storylines in this year's draft was the lack of elite players from Florida, Florida State and Miami. This marked the first time since 1980 that all three of those schools failed to produce a first-round pick. For the first time since 1977, no player from either Florida or Florida State was taken in the first three rounds.
But the top Florida high school programs - particularly in the southern part of the state - remain as productive as ever.
Nine high schools have collected at least four draft picks over the last five years. Five of them are from Florida: St. Thomas Aquinas (7), Miami Northwestern (5), Lakeland (4), Pahokee (4) and Pompano Beach Ely (4). Charlotte (N.C.) Independence, Chino (Calif.) High, Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville and Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson also each had four players drafted over the last five years.
The fact that St. Thomas Aquinas and Miami Northwestern top the chart shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
St. Thomas Aquinas topped the RivalsHigh national rankings in 2008 and finished second in the 2010 RivalsHigh poll. Miami Northwestern was named Rivals' 2007 national title with a team that featured four players who were drafted last week.
"Those really were two teams with star-studded players that won national championships almost hands down," RivalsHigh national analyst Dallas Jackson said of the 2007 Northwestern team and the 2008 St. Thomas Aquinas squad. "Miami Northwestern [in 2007] was one of the better high school football teams I've seen in the last five or six years. They had talent galore."
While four of Northwestern's five draftees over the last five years came from one class, St. Thomas Aquinas' talent has been more spread out.
The Baltimore Ravens selected former St. Thomas Aquinas linebacker Tavares Gooden out of Miami in the third round of the 2008 draft. Three St. Thomas Aquinas alums were drafted in 2010, as the Chicago Bears took Florida safety Major Wright in the third round, the Cincinnati Bengals chose Georgia defensive tackle Geno Atkins in the fourth and the Dallas Cowboys selected Notre Dame offensive tackle Sam Young in the seventh. In last year's draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers used a second-round pick on Florida offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert and the Washington Redskins chose Miami wide receiver Leonard Hankerson in the third.
All those guys had helped make St. Thomas Aquinas one of the nation's most consistently successful high school programs. Smith retired as the school's football coach in February 2011 after posting a 361-66 record in 34 seasons.
"It's the consistency with the coaching staff," said Rocco Casullo, who replaced Smith as the Raiders' head coach after working as an assistant on his staff. "The coaches have stressed fundamentals and technique. We're really big on teaching at the younger level. Those kids [who were drafted] then obviously went to good schools, and those coaches have taught them well also."
That consistency in the coaching staff continues to this day.
St. Thomas Aquinas' staff has featured occasional star power. Cris Carter, an eight-time Pro Bowl receiver who played in the NFL from 1987-2002, is a former St. Thomas Aquinas assistant. Casullo's staff this season will include two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris and former Pro Bowl safety Darryl Williams as well as former Minnesota Vikings safety Darrell Fullington.
"The Al Harrises and those guys offer so much about what life is if you're trying to be successful," Smith said.
But the most obvious example of the continuity at St. Thomas Aquinas comes from offensive line coach Jay Connolly, who has been on the coaching staff for over 35 years. Connolly helped develop Young, Gilbert and Datko into pro prospects.
"He's a technician," Casullo said. "He's fundamentally sound. When he teaches, the kids understand it. He simplifies everything. And he's got a mean streak in him like all offensive line coaches need to have. There are some days I can hear his voice in my head at 9 o'clock at night. When it's one of those days, it's tough for those guys. But he has such a passion. He cares so much about the kids. He's also an English teacher here, so he does have a soft side, believe it or not.
"The kids really love him. He has a great way of teaching, not only on the football field, but in the classroom."
Connolly isn't the only veteran on the coaching staff. Defensive line coach Jim Gazzillo and special teams coach Dave Shepherd have been at St. Thomas Aquinas for about two decades. Many of the younger assistant coaches are former St. Thomas Aquinas players.
"It's not about all the pro guys who are with us and helping us," Smith said. "It's about our other guys, too, who have been here forever and are regular high school coaches."
Those guys should help St. Thomas Aquinas send even more players to the NFL in short order.
North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard and Florida State safety Lamarcus Joyner are two St. Thomas Aquinas alums who earned all-ACC honors last season, with Bernard making the first team and Joyner appearing on the second team. Wisconsin running back James White was the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2010.
Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson, Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene and Florida State offensive tackle Bobby Hart all made big contributions last season as true freshmen after starring for the Raiders.
St. Thomas Aquinas defensive end Jelani Hamilton signed with Miami in February as the No. 106 overall prospect in the 2012 class. Other FBS recruits from St. Thomas Aquinas in the 2012 class included three-star running back Dami Ayoola (Illinois) and three-star defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (Florida).
Here's a rundown of high school programs across the nation that have produced at least three draft picks over the last five years. For the purpose of this project, we only took into account the last high school where a prospect played. For instance, if a player spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at one school before transferring to another school, we considered the second school his alma mater.
PIPELINES TO THE NFL
Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (8)
Miami Northwestern (5)
Charlotte (N.C.) Independence (4)
Chino (Calif.) (4)
Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville (4)
Lakeland (Fla.) (4)
Pahokee (Fla.) (4)
Pompano Beach (Fla.) Ely (4)
Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson (4)
BEST OF THE REST (Three players drafted over the last five years)
Batesville (Miss.) South Panola
Brandywine (Md.) Gwynn Park
Chantilly (Va.) Westfield
Delray Beach (Fla.) Atlantic
Fontana (Calif.) Kaiser
Granite Bay (Calif.)
Greenacres (Fla.) John I. Leonard
Greenbelt (Md.) Eleanor Roosevelt
Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne
Laurinburg (N.C.) Scotland County
Long Beach (Calif.) Poly
Los Angeles (Calif.) Dorsey
Miami (Fla.) Carol City
New Orleans (La.) Perry Walker
North Charleston (S.C.) Fort Dorchester
Pensacola (Fla.) Pine Forest
Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.)
Warren (Ohio) Warren G. Harding
Washington (D.C.) Dunbar