Over the past 12 years under its coach Chris Merritt, the Columbus football team has learned to win games they hadn’t since the early 1980s.
The Explorers have won 108 games during that span — an average of nine per season.
They’ve won 10 district championships.
They’ve learned to beat longtime southern Miami-Dade foes such as Southridge and Killian, and compete with and the north’s best such as Central and Northwestern, once beating the latter in a nationally televised game.
And they’ve now earned trips to the state semifinals in consecutive seasons.
But if Columbus can’t earn a victory Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in a Class 8A state semifinal at Weston Cypress Bay, many in the Columbus community will likely consider the season a disappointment.
“A lot of times people become victims of their own success,” said Merritt, who has a 108-30 record at Columbus — the school’s all-time best. “The more winning you do, the more people become accustomed to it. A lot of people that are new to the program don’t remember the days when an 8-3 record was a great year for us. Ironically, in a 6-4 regular season, we have one of our best chances ever to make it to state.”
Not since the days when Mike Shula was starting at quarterback and former UM legendary running back Alonzo Highsmith was running the football for the Explorers have they played for a state title.
Those Columbus teams lost in the state final in 1980 and 1982.
Great players that have gone on to successful college or pro careers such as Brian Griese, Danyell Ferguson, Mario Cristobal and Joaquin Gonzalez continued to play for Columbus over the next 18 years. But Columbus managed only five playoff appearances and only two playoff wins during that span.
Merritt, a graduate of the University of Indiana, was hired in 2001 after a few stints coaching at the collegiate level and running club football teams in Germany.
Merritt helped turn Columbus into a consistent winner, earning the respect of his peers in the process. Merritt has often been asked to coach on the international level with Team USA football.
Merritt also has nearly 50 of his former players currently on college rosters including Anthony Rabasa (Notre Dame), Victor Jacques (Northern Illinois), both of whom will play in the BCS National Championship game and Orange Bowl respectively, and Erik Lora, who recently set the FCS record for single-season receptions at Eastern Illinois.
“He’s steady and consistent, and they win,” said Cypress Bay coach Mark Guandolo, who will coach his 10th state semifinal Friday with his fourth different team. “He’s made them a program. It’s not a fly-by-night thing. They have a solid program, run the right way and they’re consistently in there. People don’t understand, to win it all, it’s a grind.”
Merritt credits a lot of the success to a coaching staff composed almost entirely of Columbus alumni. Nearly 30 coaches at the varsity and junior-varsity levels are Columbus graduates and work as faculty at the school.
“Chris came into a very tough position being the so-called ‘outsider’ and having to fit in with us as Columbus people,” said defensive coordinator and alum Alex Trujillo, who has coached with Merritt during all 12 years. “We tend to be very cliquish and we’re sensitive about our school because we care so much about it. I think the reason it worked is the amount of time we all put in together as coaches and how we realized that the representation of Columbus is what means the most to us.”
The success has spiked over the past six seasons.
Columbus secured perfect regular seasons in 2007, 2008 and 2010. However, Merritt has felt the heat after promising campaigns have been cut short with losses to some of the county’s best in Central and Northwestern.
After the state’s realignment before last season, the Explorers finally broke through their roadblock and advanced to the state semifinals before losing to Miramar. A 6-4 regular-season record this season that included disappointing defeats against Killian and Northwestern raised the anxiety level around the school once again.
“It takes a special kind of kid to play here and a special kind of coach to coach here,” Merritt said. “They have to understand the culture around here. It’s very hard to come in and succeed here coming in from the outside. Not every coach we’ve hired that didn’t come from within has been able to always handle it. When we were 6-4, people were in shock. People kept asking what’s wrong with us.”
During the playoffs, little has been wrong with the Explorers.
Three dominant victories against Krop, Coral Gables and Killian have raised expectations again.
But some believe a breakthrough victory Friday is what’s needed to validate Merritt’s tenure and the program’s return to true elite status.
“We told the kids today that this is the most important game we’ve had in 12 years here,” Trujillo said. “I think the kids realize that the opportunity is there for the taking.”