John Curtis to take on Florida powerhouse

John Curtis High School enjoys a statewide reputation as a giant killer. The little school that could — make that does, and divisively.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.), its opponent in the 2013 Allstate Sugar Bowl Prep Showcase, is a giant. Actually, the Raiders are juggernauts among giants in a hotbed of prep football.

Both programs enter their Sept. 13 matchup ranked in several national high school football polls. Both have former players spread throughout the nation, from college campuses to NFL training camps. Michael Irvin and Stefan Humphries to Reggie Dupard and Joe McKnight.

Sounds easy to accomplish?

Not even close to a first down.

To get here, the programs have not just won games, but won consistently. For years.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a two-time national champion, has qualified for the playoffs for 23 consecutive seasons. John Curtis has played in 17 consecutive state championships, winning 13.

When St. Thomas Aquinas played in its first big, out-of-state season opener in 2008, then-coach George Smith told his players they weren’t responsible for the game, held at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium. No, the teams before them set that standard.

“And this team’s job coming up in about a month is to let the kids that are freshmen, eighth graders coming in to have this experience that you’re afforded because of the teams before you,” Smith said.

Coaches from both schools have spent nearly as much time courting and updating college recruiters as they have drawing up the plays that morph schoolmates into superstars.

“Recruiting has gone national,” Curtis said. “Even the LSUs of the world, who certainly do exceptionally well in Louisiana; because of the television exposure, are now being able to recruit coast to coast.”

Those superstars have learned how to ignore the hype that surrounds them. In other cases, they’ve embraced it, transforming it into an addictive will to score, to sack, to smash.

One slip and the hoopla moves to the new No. 1.

In 2009, St. Thomas Aquinas was the defending consensus national champions. The Raiders, undefeated 13 games into the season and again the top-ranked team in the nation, entered their next game without one of their best players, losing to a top team in the area.

“Not only weren’t we ranked No. 1, but we weren’t in the top 25,” said Smith, who now serves as the school’s athletic director. “We just disappeared.”

The Raiders had to wait until the following season to work their way up national prep football polls.

Last year, Curtis utilized a 33-3 win against Tampa’s Plant High School in the Sugar Bowl Prep Showcase to propel the Patriots to a consensus national championship.

Then there’s branding. Back in the 1990s, it was simply known as getting your name out there.

“We started thinking how to do that,” Smith said.

They started aquinasfootball.com, which rivals web sites of most small college football programs. John Curtis has a public relations consultant.

First, though, you must win.

“We never focus on winning the national championship,” Curtis said. “The key for us is our goal is to play the best competition possible that’s going to get us in a much better position to complete for a state championship.”

Etc.

The annual showcase also features Jesuit against St. Paul’s of Covington. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 on gameday and are on sale at the Superdome box office or at http://www.ticketmaster.com/ ... The Curtis-St. Thomas Aquinas game will be broadcast on Fox Sports New Orleans ... The John Curtis-St. Augustine game Oct. 4 at Tad Gormley Stadium will be broadcast on ESPNU.