Like Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World, it's uncharted territory coming for Braden River's varsity football program. The Pirates, though, keep making history with each victory attained every Friday until the season concludes.
This week marks the program's venture into a showdown with the titan of Sunshine State prep football: Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. The Raiders venture to Manatee County for the Class 7A state semifinals, their first trip to Southwest Florida for a playoff game since Manatee High scored a 28-20 victory in 2009.
While Aquinas is the defending 7A state champs with a No. 1 state ranking, the Pirates boast the No. 2 ranking in 7A and have never advanced this far in their history.
So let's examine some key figures in this week's Numbers Game, which is all about Braden River's mon-
umental task of dethroning Aquinas.
Number on retired Chicago Bears jersey worn by Brian Piccolo, who was the first St. Thomas Aquinas player to play in the NFL. Piccolo's name is attached to the Raiders' home stadium, and the running back was the inspiration for the 1971 TV movie, "Brian's Song," which detailed the friendship he had with Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. Piccolo died June 16, 1970, from cancer at the age of 26, and his name is used for the most courageous player award in the Atlantic Coast Conference each season. He was the nation's leading collegiate scorer and rusher in 1964 during his senior year at Wake Forest.
Average rushing yards allowed per game by Braden River's defense in the playoffs. The Pirates' run-stoppers, though, face a bigger test this week against St. Thomas Aquinas, which has yet to rush for less than 100 yards as a team for the entire season. In three playoff games, the Raiders have accrued more than 250 rushing yards each time, with Jaxson Kincaide (385 rushing yards on 29 carries) leading the group. Braden River's defense limited Plant City to just 67 total yards in the second half of last week's region championship victory, with only 16 of those yards coming on the ground.
Completion percentage for Braden River senior quarterback Jacob Huesman in the second half of last week's Plant City victory. Huesman connected on all 11 of his passes in the last two quarters, which was capped with a 15-yard touchdown to Juwaan Jenkins to ice the Pirates' 17-7 win. Huesman finished with 275 passing yards, while the Pirates' defense tallied three interceptions for a total of seven picks in three postseason wins.
Number of former St. Thomas Aquinas players in the NFL this season. Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard is arguably the most well-known player in the NFL who played at Aquinas, which has the most players in the league among any high school in the nation.
This year's current Raiders group also boasts the sons of Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, former Super Bowl champion Isaac Bruce and Asante Samuel and former NBA champion Udonis Haslem.
Irvin is the only one of that quartet who played for the Raiders.
Amount of state championships won by St. Thomas Aquinas, and it's the amount won by Manatee County programs. Manatee High leads with five, while Southeast has two, and Palmetto won its only state crown in 1975 when the Tigers became the first county program to earn a state football championship.
Aquinas claimed six state titles under former head coach and current athletic director George Smith, who stepped away from the sidelines after claiming his second national championship in 2010. Rocco Casullo took over and won two state titles in four seasons, before giving way to current head coach Roger Harriott, who is in his first season.
Only Lakeland, Manatee and Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer have prevented Aquinas from winning state titles since 2004. During that time, the Raiders have won five state championships and finished runner-up three more times.
St. Thomas Aquinas' winning percentage all-time in the playoffs against Manatee County programs. The Raiders lost their first head-to-head battle against a Manatee County foe back in 1994 when Southeast defeated them en route to a state championship. The Raiders then defeated Manatee County programs five consecutive times (Southeast in 1999 and 2000, Lakewood Ranch in 2002 and Manatee in 2005 and 2006). The Hurricanes are the team Aquinas has met the most in the postseason, holding a 4-1 all-time advantage during an eight-year span. Manatee won in 2009 en route to a state runner-up finish, while dropping meetings against STA in 2010 and 2012.
Aquinas enters Friday state semifinal as the No. 1 ranked team in Class 7A, facing the No. 2 ranked Pirates. It's the second straight year the Raiders are in a 1 vs. 2 semifinal, having routed Tarpon Springs East Lake, 45-7, on the way to the state crown.
Jason Dill, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7017 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jason__Dill and like his Facebook page at Jason Dill Bradenton Herald.