When Miami Columbus head coach Chris Merritt and his assistants looked back on the 2013 football season, the lack of experience jumped out as the reason his team failed to win the district and posted an “average” 7-5 record.
While a 1-4 start put the Explorers in a hole, it didn’t stop this quality program from finishing strong with 40 seniors helping to keep the team together down the stretch.
In a year where four of the five losses came by a combined 14 points, it was one of those seasons where the players, coaches and fans were left shaking their collective heads when the season came to an end during a two-day playoff game against rival Coral Gables. The Explorers were in control when the rains came on the first day, but seemed to fall apart on the second day.
Coral Gables, which had one of its best seasons in nearly 14 years, ended up advancing and narrowly lost to eventual 8A state champion South Dade. That gave Merritt and his team a feeling that a few breaks here and there and this program could have been holding its first state championship trophy last December.
“It really was a frustrating season because we just didn’t have the experience to make those plays needed to be a championship team,” Merritt said. “The talent was there, but many of the players we had on the roster were never in a position of making those plays in the big games.”
What Columbus faced the past two years was losing 78 seniors and replacing them with several younger prospects. Add to that the many players who transferred out over a two-year period and that could very well be why those close losses defined the season.
As the 2014 season looms on the horizon, there is a different feeling around campus. While there are a record 54 seniors on this year’s team, many of those 2015 prospects are ready to be those decision makers.
Prospects such as quarterback Tucker Beirne, running back Ernest Donaldson, receivers Austin Maloney and Xavier Williams, and versatile Andres Fernandez on offense — and lineman Alejandro Levy, linebackers Fernando Escobar and Peter Delatour, and quality secondary performers J.R. Garrigo, Zack VanDemark and Anthony Rosenfeld.
“The big difference is with [Beirne] on offense,” Merritt said. “Two years ago, he was thrust into a position where he just wasn’t ready, but nobody has worked harder to be a leader and a physical threat like he has. Levy has done the same on defense.”
While this senior class is indeed gifted and now loaded with the experience needed, its underclassmen — perhaps the best in recent memory — that will give this program a huge lift and provide them with enough talent to be one of the favorites to get to Orlando this season.
The junior class is stacked with difference makers on both sides of the ball, with athletic Ivan Smith, speedy running back Amir Rasul, Palmetto transfer Jerron Rollins at receiver, steady linemen Kyle Mann and Kevin Householder, and quarterback Alejandro Ros adding to the offense.
Emerging linebacker/defensive end prospect Bryce Handy and linebacker Dean Maestu have proven to be quality players who will be instrumental this season.
“This is a really a quality underclass we have this season,” Merritt said. “Add in 2017 defensive back Trajan Bandy, and it even gets better.”
With teams such as Killian, South Dade, Coral Gables, Southwest Miami and North Miami serving as major obstacles this season, the Explorers, coming off a productive spring where they knocked off Boward County programs Cardinal Gibbons and Boyd Anderson, have the right to believe they can be right in the mix.
“I have to believe that our schedule has a lot to do with the success of the program,” Merritt said. “We start with the defending 8A state champions, South Dade, play our rival Belen Jesuit, compete in what was the district title game last year with a very talented Coral Gables and then play the three-time 6A state champion Central.”
Instead of playing defending 5A state champion Plantation American Heritage again, the Explorers will fly to Kentucky on Oct. 11 to play Highlands High.