Coral Gables knew since the spring that being competitive against Columbus wasn’t enough.
The Cavaliers would have to defeat their biggest obstacle in order to take the next step in their program’s evolution.
It took Gregory Howell rushing for 209 yards and two touchdowns after 33 taxing carries.
It took three all-purpose touchdowns from receiver Antiwone Johnson.
It took three interceptions from its secondary.
All three factors propelled Coral Gables to a dramatic 30-27 victory against Columbus on Friday afternoon at Tropical Park.
It was the Cavaliers’ first victory against Columbus since 2006 — the last time Gables won a district championship and the Explorers did not.
Coral Gables (3-0, 1-0 District 14-8A) entered the game ranked No. 18 in the Miami Herald’s South Florida Top 20 and one spot ahead of Columbus (1-3, 0-1).
“After we got blown out by them twice last season, our goal was to get back to the mentality that when you play Coral Gables, it’s going to be a hard-fought game,” Coral Gables coach Roger Pollard said. “Hopefully, we can maintain this for the rest of the season because you never know if we may see each other again.”
Gables players huddled around Pollard for his postgame speech Friday.
Pollard instead told his guys to go celebrate with the nearly 1,000 home fans who cheered and counted down the final seconds before time expired.
“Winning is attractive,” Pollard said. “We start doing that and we’ll get more and more people to come and support us. It’s great to see so many people here to support us.”
Gables overcame five failed conversion attempts after touchdowns and had to come back twice to secure the victory.
Columbus quarterback Tucker Beirne completed 20 of 33 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns, but threw three costly interceptions.
Gables senior Kadeem Norris, junior Andrew Spence and sophomore Gee Stanley each had an interception, halting promising Columbus drives.
“This is very special for us,” Johnson said. “We won this as a team. I got my touchdowns thanks to our offensive line and my teammates. We wanted this one more than any other game.”
Johnson helped the Cavaliers erase a 13-0 deficit in the first half.
First, he capped an 11-play drive with a 24-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Dijion Smith on fourth down. After stopping Columbus on the ensuing drive, Johnson fielded a punt and returned it 61 yards for another score to cut the Explorers’ lead to 13-12.
Following Stanley’s interception to open the second half, Johnson ran for a 23-yard touchdown to give Gables the lead at 18-13.
Columbus regained the advantage on an 8-yard touchdown run by Oshton Armstrong late in the third quarter. But Gables answered two drives later with a nine-play, 69-yard drive that Howell capped with a 2-yard score to give Gables the lead for good.
“This took a district-championship effort, and we brought that [Friday],” Howell said. “This shows that we are fighters on this team. We’re going to keep clawing and never give up.”