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September 21, 2011

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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.

When Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas hosts Concord (Calif.) De La Salle this Friday night in the first-ever meeting of two of the most heralded high school programs, it will be more than just a game - it will be an event discussed and dissected for years.

For fans who have debated the strengths of the two programs - not to mention, the strength of the two states - it's a dream come true.

Players and coaches have refused to get caught up in the historical implications of this matchup. But even they know there's no escaping the modern-day reality of the game: National championships aren't won in September, but they sure can be lost.

Is it any wonder the game, televised nationally by ESPN, is the RivalsHigh Game of the Week.

"The national title talk has already begun (at De La Salle)," Lorenzo Harris, editor of NorCalPreps.com, said. "But it will certainly intensify with a win over Aquinas."

Both teams enter the game at 2-0 and comfortably inside the Top Ten of the RivalsHigh 100.

St. Thomas Aquinas, 2-0, is ranked No. 4 in this week's RivalsHigh 100. De La Salle, also 2-0, is at No. 8.

Reaching the top is the goal. Aquinas star linebacker Brian Cox Jr., said as much after his team opened the season with a victory over then-No. 1 Prattville (Ala.) High. De La Salle quarterback Bart Houston talked about national titles last January, during the Army All-American junior combine.

Of course, you can't talk long about either program before the subject of national championships comes up.

De La Salle was one of the first national powers, recognized as national champions seven times from 1994-2003 - a period in which it had an incredible 151-game winning streak.

St. Thomas Aquinas is the dominant team of recent memory, losing only twice in the past four years while taking the national title in 2008 and finishing No. 2 a year ago.

History, however, won't determine the outcome of this one. The teams will.

De La Salle is led by Houston on offense and linebacker Michael Barton on defense.

The team had a scare earlier in the season, beating Northern California rival San Jose (Calif.) Bellarmine Prep in double overtime. And while some may see that as a negative, Harris sees it another way.

"(The Bellarmine game) certainly was a wakeup call," Harris said. "But (Coach Bob) Ladouceur is masterful at using these types of games as motivation."

St. Thomas Aquinas held on to defeat preseason-No. 1 Prattville (Ala.) High, 34-31, to open its season, then blanked then-nationally ranked Weston (Fla.) Cypress Bay, 42-0.

FlaVarsity.com publisher Steve Berrey thinks Aquinas benefited from the close call, too.

"I think the nerves were gone for the second game," he said. "Look for those same teams this Friday, although the lights will be brighter."

While Cox and Jelani Hamilton lead the defense, new quarterback Max Lescano is emerging as the leader of the offense.

The teams may argue this is only one game and not make or break for the season. And since the game won't impact either's chance at a state title, that is correct.

These schools, however, are about more than just state titles. The game is hardly just another matchup on the schedule.

"It is widely believed that California football is down this year," Harris said. "A De La Salle win could change that perception."

St. Thomas Aquinas can alter a different type of perception.

"To Florida fans this is a chance to play a national power in our own backyard," Berrey said. "Not having to go to Ohio, Texas, or California.

"It's time for Florida to be hosting some of these games; to showcase the teams that never get invited to out-of-state events."

This game will serve as a showcase for two of the top programs in the land.

National GOTW
No. 4 Aquinas vs. No. 8 De La Salle
QB Max Lescano (5-10/180, Sr.)
RB Dami Ayoola (5-10/201, Sr.)
DE Jelani Hamilton (6-5/249, Sr.)
DL Bryan Cox Jr. (6-3/240, Sr.)
QB Bart Houston (6-4/208, Sr.)
LB Michael Barton (6-1/209, Sr.)
LB Michael Hutchings (6-2/210, Jr.)

When: Friday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m.
Last Meeting: First-ever meeting
Rankings: St. Thomas Aquinas (2-0), No. 1 in Florida
De La Salle (2-0), No. 1 in California

St. Thomas Aquinas wins if: Max Lescano plays well. The senior quarterback is making only his third start, but each has been against a nationally-ranked opponent. He played just good enough to not lose against Prattville and improved against Cypress Bay. Taking that next step and leading a team to a victory would be huge as the team still has multiple ranked teams ahead. Coach Rocco Cassullo will not be asking much of Lescano, relying on the running game instead. But when he does take his shots - which he will - Lescano must step up.

De La Salle wins if: The offensive line is up to the challenge. In a size and strength stalemate against Prattville, Aquinas was able to use conditioning and technique to win the line of scrimmage. De La Salle will have equal footing in the coaching and conditioning department, but it will be out-sized and likely out-talented across the line. If that unit can continue to grind and open holes in the running game, as well as keep Houston's jersey clean, it will go a long way to winning.

Prediction: A game in the 30s is very unlikely to happen as both teams have defenses that are tough to score on and offenses that will keep the clock moving. Turnovers and special teams could be the difference in this game and that may swing the favor to De La Salle. There isn't a scientific measure for home-field advantage or swagger, but both of those intangibles favor St. Thomas Aquinas. Look for the out-of-state winning to continue for the Raiders. - Aquinas 24, De La Salle 13.

Game of the Week Predictions: 3-2 (10-5 in '10, '09, and '08)

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