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August 8, 2011

RivalsHigh 100: No. 10 St. Thomas Aquinas

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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.

RivalsHigh.com has begun its 2011 countdown, ranking the teams from No. 100 down to No. 1.

We started at No. 100 on July 25 and are now down to our final three days counting down from No. 10 to No. 1. Our top team will be unveiled on Wednesday morning on Rivals Radio - two weeks from the start of the season.

After that, we will wait until Sept. 5 for the next rankings, then have them every Monday during the season.

The team rankings were compiled by high school sports senior analyst Dallas Jackson, the Rivals AMP team, football recruiting analysts and the entire RivalsHigh network of publishers.

In case you missed it: Previous ranking groups | Post your thoughts about the No. 10 team

Top 100 countdown
No. 10 St. Thomas Aquinas
COACH: Rocco Casullo
LAST SEASON: 15-0, Florida Class 5A State Champs
FINAL 2010 RANKING: No. 2 in RivalsHigh 100

Rocco Casullo knew the pressure and spotlight he was stepping into when he chose to take over for George Smith as head coach at national powerhouse Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.

Then he asked for more.

"When I took over, Coach Smith asked me what I wanted on the schedule," Casullo said. "I told him to make it hard, I wanted some tough games, but I didn't think he would put both Prattville [(Ala.) High] and [Concord (Calif.)] De La Salle on there for me."

For the No. 10-ranked Raiders, the tests will start early and will not end.

"By the time our first five games are done, you will have a good sampling from us," Cassullo said. "We play four top teams and they all run different offenses. It will be a challenge for us as coaches.

"I have not won one game as a head coach here, so I have to be honest, I am looking more forward to having a good practice on Monday than anything else."

The first five games of the season will see the Raiders play three teams that were ranked in the preseason RivalsHigh 100 as well as a team that was acknowledged as one that could be a major mover as the season goes on.

Prattville and De La Salle enter the season ahead of Aquinas in the national rankings, Miramar (Fla.) High was evaluated as the No. 83-ranked team and Weston (Fla.) Cypress Bay was picked as one of six unranked teams that could charge to the Top 25.

It is a daunting task for any team, but as Casullo points out, this team will have its hands full just getting ready for the action as the roster has turned over considerably.

"We have a lot of new faces that will be out there for us," he said. "We need to have some good practices leading up to the Prattville game."

The Raiders are replacing seven starters who went to BCS conference football programs and three others who signed with Division I teams. The most affected area will be the team's passing game as quarterback Jake Rudock is off to Iowa and receivers Rashad Greene and Phillip Dorsett are now at Florida State and Miami, respectively.

"It will be tough," Cassullo said. "I think all the receivers on our roster have a combined 25 catches, so we need to get that addressed."

There are two main areas that the team does return though, giving Casullo early hope that his team can remain among the nation's elite and play with some teams that return much more than his.

"Oh, our defensive front seven and our running backs are strong," he said. "We are set there. It's those other spots that will be questions. We are talented but inexperienced and that just comes with playing. So those kids will gain that quickly."

Jelani Hamilton, transfer Bryan Cox Jr., Tyler Drake and Bryan Goodin will be four senior leaders in the front seven that all enter the year with college football opportunities.

Junior Fred Coppet, who when last seen was pacing the team's state final victory over Tampa (Fla.) Plant, and senior Dami Ayoola will be in the backfield.

Even with those players in tow, Cassulo is not sure his team is ready for the preseason hype.

"I really wish we weren't in the Top 10," he said. "We have a tough schedule and a lot of new additions. We could earn it, but I would like to do it that way than have it out there already."

For a first-year coach taking over a program that has a national championship and a runner-up finish within the last three years, he knows that those accolades are not earned from just August through December. And he has made sure his players do as well.

"The hard part is over," he said. "That's what I told the kids. Getting ready to play Aquinas football is harder than going out and playing. The season is the fun part."

Casullo has put the team through a 12-week conditioning course in the spring and an eight-week summer lifting program, all before fall practice begins.

It is the commitment of the players that Casullo said will help ensure the team's success.

"We had conditioning and lifting," he said. "To get 86 kids in at 6 in the morning to lift and have perfect attendance shows the level of commitment and dedication they have to this program."

Whether the dedication translates to wins is yet to be seen, but Casullo knows that his team - and the target that goes with being at St. Thomas Aquinas - needs to be ready for a demanding schedule.

One that, with an undefeated state title season, could see it potentially square off with other nationally-ranked programs in Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee and West Palm Beach (Fla.) Dwyer in the Class 7A playoffs.

"Wow, I didn't think about that," he said. "I think that may be a little ahead of where we want to be focused, but we talk about winning a state title. So if we do go through those teams, it will be impressive."

It could be impressive enough for another national championship.

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