Columbus’ defensive players are some times referred to by teammates as “firefighters.”
On Thursday night at Tropical Park, the group was called upon immediately to save the Explorers from a dangerous situation.
The defense answered the call throughout a 14-7 Columbus victory over Coral Gables that helped the Explorers clinch the District 14-8A championship.
“We’re fire fighters and we’re called upon at any moment,” senior defensive lineman Mike Rodriguez said. “It was a lot of inches being won out there up front. We wanted to make sure they knew who the best team was.”
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Columbus (6-3, 4-0) and Coral Gables (7-1, 3-1) have split the past four district championships after the Explorers had won district titles six consecutive seasons from 2007 to ’12.
Columbus, which concluded its regular season Thursday, will host American in the first round of the playoffs. Coral Gables will take on North Miami Beach in a game most likely to be played at North Miami Stadium.
“Defense was lights out and really outcoached them and us,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “They put us in position to win the game.”
Columbus forced three turnovers, including a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown by Joshua Jobe that gave the Explorers a 14-0 lead late in the first half.
But it was up front where Columbus dominated throughout the game.
The Explorers had eight sacks, including four by Rodriguez to limit Coral Gables to 57 total yards and only four passing.
“We knew it was a game of who wanted it more, which sounds cliché but it really was the case [Thursday] because we were two evenly matched teams,” Rodriguez said. “I think we saw our defense pull our offense out of trouble and we’re proud of our ability to do that.”
Despite the dominant effort on one side of the ball, Columbus gave Gables numerous chances to come back.
Gables senior Elyjah Felton intercepted an overthrown pass by quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to make it a one-score game.
Columbus kicker David Contreras missed a field goal on the drive prior to the turnover, and had another blocked with three minutes remaining in regulation.
But Contreras made a key special-teams play with a clutch 42-yard punt with under two minutes left that pinned Gables inside its own 20.
Columbus’ defense seemingly put the game away with three sacks that gave it possession at the Gables’ 1-yard line. A quarterback sneak on the ensuing play, however, resulted in a fumble and another turnover.
But Gables couldn’t advance more than a handful of yards and ran out of time.
“If we’re going to have any success in the playoffs we have to quit being so self-destructive,” Merritt said. “Pressure forces kids to break records or break. We have to find a way in practice to put pressure on them to where they’re breaking records.”
As heavy rain came down at the start of the game, the Explorers fumbled on their first play of the game.
But Columbus held Gables, forcing them to kick a field goal that Sebastian Riella hooked wide right from 30 yards out, keeping the game scoreless.
On Gables’ ensuing drive, Columbus jarred the ball loose from quarterback Nick Galuppo, allowing junior Tony Mills to pick it up and race down to the Cavaliers’ 20.
Three plays later, Columbus capitalized when Marcelo Rodriguez lobbed a quick pass to Willie Davis, who took it 14 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.