With balanced offenses and dominant defenses, the Columbus and Flanagan football teams have mirrored each other in many respects this season.
It’s been hard this week for either team’s coaches to spot differences heading into what many consider the most important game in each program’s history.
“We’re two identical teams when you look at us both. Even statistically, we’re pretty close,“ Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “Both offenses are averaging around the same amount of points. There aren’t even a whole lot of common opponents to compare to outside of teams we played in the preseason.
“We’re even in a lot of ways.”
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One obvious advantage for Flanagan (13-0) will be playing in front of a capacity crowd at their home campus when it hosts Columbus (12-1) on Friday night at 7:30p.m. in a Class8A state semifinal.
The Falcons are two wins away from capping their best season in school history by winning their first-ever state championship.
Columbus has more playoff experience, however.
The Explorers, whose only loss this season came against national powerhouse Miami Central, will play in a state semifinal for the third time in the past four seasons as they try to reach the state championship round for the first time since 1982.
Columbus reached the final that season and in 1980 but lost both times.
“I see two tough teams playing a tough, hard-fought game to the end,” Flanagan coach Devin Bush said. “Columbus is going to come in and not make mistakes. They’ve been in this game three times in the past four years. That’s not by accident. Those coaches over there know how to do it and really put everything together. We don’t have that experience yet, but they do.”
Flanagan’s offense enters the game averaging 37.8 points per game. Columbus is averaging 34.1 points.
Columbus’ defense has been superb in the playoffs, allowing only seven points in three games. The Explorers have only given up 16 points in their past six games.
Flanagan’s defense has three shutouts this season, allowed 10 points or less in 10 games this season, and appears to be persevering despite losing one of its top players in linebacker Devin Bush, Jr., who broke his wrist in the Falcons’ regional quarterfinal win against Coral Springs on Nov.14.
“We’ve got two good offenses and two good defenses,” Merritt said. “In the end, the best offense may win the day, but if one of us is celebrating in Orlando, it’s good to be the best defense that wins the championship.”
Flanagan has been touted for its advantage in greater FBS-level talent with several highly-recruited prospects on each side of the ball.
Merritt said Columbus has one player committed to an FBS school — senior wide receiver Austin Maloney (50 catches, 798 yards, 9 TDs) to FIU.
But a “talent disadvantage“ is something Columbus has been used to hearing from pundits all season.
“We’ve been overlooked all season, and it’s nothing new to us,” Columbus senior defensive back J.R. Garrigo said. “Every team we play has DivisionI athletes. But we know how to play together, and that’s made us successful. We love playing teams like these that are undefeated and playing them at their place. It makes us that much better.”
Garrigo and senior defensive lineman Alejandro Levy, the backbone of the Explorers’ front four, know they have a tough task slowing down Flanagan’s offense. The Falcons’ wide receivers, an experienced unit that has been together for the better part of three seasons, could play a huge role.
Senior Emonee Spence (Miami commit) has caught 48 passes for a team-high 886 yards and nine touchdowns, and Keavon Mitchell has a team-high 50 catches for 797 yards and eight touchdowns. Robert Foy (23 catches, 418 yards, 6 TDs) and Walter Jackson (21 catches, 394 yards, 3 TDs) are also key contributors. The group is complemented by a running game that has totaled 1,588 yards and 32 touchdowns.
“We’ve got the best receiving core around,” said Flanagan senior quarterback Ryan Stanley, who has thrown for 2,804 yards and 28 touchdowns to only five interceptions this season. “Just get Keavon the ball, and he can turn it into a 70 yard touchdown. Emonee is a ‘go-get-the-ball’ type of guy. It’s become routine for us.”
Bush said he’s been preoccupied with slowing down Flanagan’s counterparts, Maloney, junior receiver Jerron Rollins (38 catches, 620 yards, 8 TDs) and Columbus junior running back Ivan Smith all week.
“I’m seeing them in my sleep,” Bush said. “I see those numbers by heart. We have to know where they’re lined up on every play. This is going to be a great matchup, and we’re very excited about it.”
If you go
What: The 52nd annual state football championships.
Where: The Citrus Bowl, 1 Citrus Bowl Place, Orlando.
Defending state champions — Class 8A: Homestead South Dade; 7A: Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer; 6A: Miami Central; 5A: Plantation American Heritage; 4A: Miami Booker T. Washington; 3A: Jacksonville Trinity Christian; 2A: Hialeah Champagnat Catholic; 1A: Trenton.
Friday’s schedule — Class 2A: Indian Rocks Christian vs. Lakeland Victory Christian, 1:07p.m.; Class 1A: Jasper Hamilton County vs. Port St. Joe, 7:07p.m.
Saturday’s schedule — Class 3A: Delray American Heritage vs. Jacksonville Trinity Christian, 1:07p.m.; Class 4A: Booker T. Washington vs. Jacksonville Bolles, 7:07p.m.
Friday’s state semifinals
Class 8A: Columbus at Flanagan, 7:30p.m.
Class 7A: Tarpon Springs East Lake at St. Thomas Aquinas, 7:30p.m.
Class 6A at Daytona Beach Municipal Stadium: Central vs. Mainland, 7:30p.m.
Class 5A: Orlando Bishop Moore at American Heritage, 7:30p.m.