Region 4-8A semifinal | Columbus vs. Coral Gables, 7 p.m. Thursday

Everything is on the line in Columbus-Coral Gables rematch

 

After a 1-4 start to the season, Columbus can continue its turnaround by avenging a loss earlier this season to Coral Gables when they meet in the regional semifinals.

 
Columbus WR Sasha Kelsey breaks for a run during the third quarter of a football game between Columbus and North Miami Beach on Nov. 15, 2013.
Columbus WR Sasha Kelsey breaks for a run during the third quarter of a football game between Columbus and North Miami Beach on Nov. 15, 2013.
Gregory Castillo / Miami Herald Staff

a1fernandez@MiamiHerald.com

Columbus senior Nick Garcia is hardly a prototypical defensive end.

He’s 5-10, 165 pounds and usually gives up around 100 pounds or to most of the lineman he matches up against.

But what Garcia lacks in size, he makes up for in heart and hustle, according to Columbus coaches.

“His first two steps off the snap and his leverage are awesome for a kid that opponents look at and think he looks like a stick figure and they can just knock him out,” Columbus defensive coordinator Alex Trujillo said. “We have a good group of kids on this defense, but to me Garcia is the heart and soul of this team.”

Garcia’s interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter of last week’s first-round playoff game against North Miami was the catalyst for his team’s 32-6 victory.

The win was Columbus’ sixth in a row following a 1-4 start and a reminder to the rest of Class 8A that the Explorers were still very much alive in the race to Orlando.

Columbus (7-4) has a chance to avenge its most costly defeat of the season 7 p.m. Thursday when it plays Coral Gables (10-1) at Tropical Park in a Region 4-8A semifinal.

Coming off back-to-back trips to the state semifinals, Columbus’ first half of this season included a blowout loss to Plantation American Heritage and defeats to Gables, South Dade and Norland, each by five points or less.

The poor start had coaches questioning whether the team needed to make wholesale changes.

Garcia, a two-year starter, said players never doubted they could turn things around.

“Our core players knew from the beginning that we had the ability to get Columbus football back to where we were before,” Garcia said.

The Explorers instead made adjustments.

One of the most important was moving Garcia from his outside linebacker position and giving him a chance to play at defensive end.

Garcia has 50 tackles, three interceptions (including two returned for a touchdown), five sacks, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal this season.

Playing opposite senior end Nick McBeath — an FIU commitment who has 48 tackles, five fumble recoveries, two sacks and an interception this season — the Explorers’ defense has excelled. Columbus has had three shutouts during the six-game wining streak, in which it has allowed just 15 points.

Garcia and McBeath have been friends since childhood, playing football together at Kendall Boys and Girls Club. They have since become a force on the Explorers’ defense, a smart group that maintains an average GPA of 3.5.

“They used to call me ‘Bulldog’ and we used to call Nick, the ‘Old Man’ because he sometimes has that angry look on his face,” said Garcia, who has a 4.1 GPA.

Columbus’ starters have not been scored upon during the streak.

“We had a lot of close losses early, but we had to pick things up and we had to learn how to finish,” McBeath said. “Everyone was counting us out but we knew what we could do. Our speed has made the difference, and not all those offensive lineman we face are as conditioned as well as us.”

Garcia and McBeath will be tasked with containing a balanced Gables offense that ran for 279 yards and totaled 414 overall in the first meeting. The Cavaliers have prospered behind senior Gregory Howell, who had 209 yards in that game, sophomore Keino Mike and versatile senior quarterback Dijion Smith.

But Howell sat out last week’s playoff win against Hialeah and was limited in the team’s regular-season finale against Southwest due to a thigh bruise.

“What we give up in size, we make up with effort and physicality up the lines,” Garcia said. “The first Gables game hurt us, but we’re not going in saying it’s about revenge. For us, it’s about redemption.”

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