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August 24, 2011
Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Prattville (Ala.) High, the No. 1 team in the RivalsHigh Top 100, knows it has the talent to go undefeated and win a national championship.
It just doesn't know if it has the ability to win one big game.
For as good as the program has been - and the nearly dozen Division I recruits that dot the roster each fall - winning 'The Big Game' always has been a stumbling block.
It will get its next chance Saturday, when it hosts perennial power and No. 9 overall team Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas at Buccaneer Field in Hoover, Ala.
"We need to get some of these games in the win column," Prattville coach Jamey DuBose said. "We know (Aquinas) will be a tough test, but we can't just keep playing these types of games and come out on the wrong end."
Since the start of 2008 season, Prattville is just 1-4 in out-of-state games. It has lost to Cincinnati (Ohio) St. Xavier, Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco, Suwannee (Ga.) North Gwinnett, and Miami (Fla.) Central. Its lone victory came against Brentwood (Tenn.) Brentwood Academy in 2008.
In that same time span, St. Thomas Aquinas has only lost one game, won a national title and secured a runner-up finish, as well as won four major out-of-state games.
Simply put, St. Thomas Aquinas is used to playing in - and winning - 'The Big Game.'
This one, however, will be different than most of the others. It will mark the first time in four years that the program comes into a game as the underdog.
"They are the top team right now," Rocco Casullo, the St. Thomas Aquinas head coach, said. "You can look at the top teams in Florida each year and find fast teams, strong teams, well-coached teams, and this group looks like a combination of all of that."
It is also the first game for Casullo as a head coach since taking over for George Smith - who spent all but three seasons since 1975 as the head coach at Aquinas and is now the Athletic Director at the school.
"It is my first game, too," Casullo said. "It is our first game of the season. It is some of these kids first time on a plane. It is a lot of their first varsity starts.
"It is going to be hard to approach it just like any other game with all of that going on."
Being the RivalsHigh National Game of the Week and airing on ESPN already separates this from being just another game.
The focus on routine, according to Casullo, needs to be like any other though.
"We went from 2010 into our workout season," he said. "Then summer and practice. This is our game week. We are approaching this as business as usual; we need to get settled in as a group."
The group, however, is much different from the one that last took the field in the state title game.
The turnover on the roster of the Raiders is staggering when stacked against what Prattville returns.
"They have nine starters back on defense," Casullo said. "We have five starters back on offense. That is a tough spot to start out with."
Aquinas returns two running backs, two offensive linemen and its tight end from last year.
All of the team's losses on offense - save for one lineman - were Division I players: quarterback Jake Rudock (Iowa), receivers Rashad Greene (Florida State) and Phillip Dorsett (Miami), and linemen Bobby Hart (Florida State) as well as Austin Barron (Florida State).
"We have to be very smart with this game," Casullo said. "We want to put kids in a position they are comfortable with. We will have to fight for first downs; I am not sure we have the threats to take many deep shots so we have to eliminate mistakes."
Any shots the team tries to take will be through the arm of Max Lescano, who will be making his first start.
The flip side of the Aquinas offensive quandary will be the Prattville plethora of returning talent.
There are 10 starters back on the offensive side of the ball.
"On paper, we are very good," DuBose said. "But games are not won on paper as you well know. (Aquinas) has been-there done-that on the field, on the road and we haven't. It is going to test us."
But as Casullo points out, the difference between the two teams is very narrow.
"You know the difference between the top team and the No. 50 team is very small," he said. "Any of those teams can beat the others and that is why we play the games."