The Irish closed the 2009 regular season with their first win over Washington-Wilkes since 1980. The victory gave Aquinas a 5-5 record and tied it with Warren County and Washington-Wilkes for one of the final two playoff spot in the region. But of the three teams, Aquinas lost the tiebreaker because of its record against Class A schools.
"These guys think about it every day," Irish head coach Matt LeZotte said. "We want to be in the playoffs."
"To be that close and not make it," senior right tackle Sam Few said, his voice trailing off. "We knew we deserved to make the playoffs.
"That was definitely motivation."
In LeZotte's second year, Aquinas is back stronger than ever with an eye on making the postseason in a tough Region 7-A. Numbers are up -- 48 players dot the roster compare to 38 a year ago -- and the team features 15 returning starters.
Also, Aquinas added former head coach Jim Connor as the offensive line coach and longtime Evans assistant Durward Sauls to coach linebackers and defensive linemen. The addition of Connor means LeZotte has one fewer responsibility and can now concentrate his focus on the entire offense.
In his first year, LeZotte led the Irish to their first non-losing season since 2005 -- the last year the team made the playoffs. Aquinas dropped a close game to Westside early, got pounded at Lincoln County midway through the season and later lost to Warren County on a 56-yard pass in the final minute.
The Irish responded with a win at Hancock Central. Then, Aquinas dominated Washington-Wilkes to the tune of a rousing 28-12 win. Though they didn't make the playoffs, the Irish fed off that season-ending victory.
"Those are the type of wins that can help build a program up," LeZotte said.
"It's crazy what winning can do," said sophomore fullback/linebacker Brendan Douglas, noting that 18 freshman joined the team this year.
Aquinas returns quarterback Dane Anderson to lead its spread attack, along with Douglas, running back Collin Oliver and wideouts Brian Hill and Corey Gomillion. The Irish have three returning starters on the line, including Few, who moved from tight end to right tackle. Aquinas also features eight returning starters on defense.
The Irish play just four home games this year; they will play six in 2011. Also, Aquinas has four nonregion games against Class A opponents -- a move LeZotte made in case his team gets in a tiebreaker situation again.
The Irish are bunched in a region with Lincoln County, Twiggs County, Warren County, Washington-Wilkes and Wilkinson County -- all playoff teams in 2009. But LeZotte said his team has improved.
"We just need to learn how to win," LeZotte said. "We've got to have the mindset that it's not OK to compete just for one half."