Columbus brought a festive atmosphere to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando this past December to celebrate what it hoped would be the school’s first state football championship.
Apopka dashed those dreams with a 30-23 defeat in the Class 8A final.
For the Explorers, it might have just been the first step.
A loaded squad seems to have all the pieces needed to challenge for the title again in the state’s largest classification.
Plenty of contenders such as South Dade, Coral Gables and Southridge are looming should Columbus slip up. And with Miami Central eyeing a possible county-record fourth consecutive state title, it could be another special season for Miami-Dade’s large schools.
1. Central: The one thing that has eluded the Rockets throughout their historic run of five consecutive state appearances and four state titles is a national championship — and that will remain the case because of their 38-14 loss to Maryland power DeMatha Catholic on Saturday. Still, Central doesn’t appear to have a weakness and has one of the deepest backfields in the state and one of the best defenses in America.
2. Columbus: The aforementioned Explorers believe they have one of the best defenses in the school’s history, and that’s saying a lot considering some of the impressive units the team has had in the past. Columbus can separate itself if its offense can match its defense. New quarterback Alex Ros has some pretty good weapons at his disposal, including receiver Jerron Rollins and running back C.J. Henderson. Expect the Explorers to make another run and possibly clash with Flanagan again with a return trip to Orlando on the line.
3. South Dade: Remember when the Bucs won the Class 8A state title? It was only two years ago. After missing the playoffs last season, South Dade might have all the right ingredients to push Columbus and Flanagan for a chance to make it two titles in three seasons.
4. Norland: If anyone can match defenses with Central, it might be the Vikings. A plethora of Football Bowl Subdivision-level talent resides on defensive coordinator Luther Campbell’s squad, which should be one of the best in town again. If Norland can get any semblance of an explosive offense, expect it to reach the playoffs.
5. Coral Gables: Following a disappointing season that started with state title expectations and ended with a second-round loss to Columbus, the Cavaliers have reloaded. A stout defense is complemented by a strong running game that could propel Gables back to the postseason and a potential deep run.
6. Southridge: The Spartans brought in three-time state championship coach Billy Rolle in hopes of maintaining some consistency at the head coaching position. Southridge has a loaded squad that should be able to get back to the postseason and battle South Dade for the District 16-8A title.
7. Carol City: The Chiefs have an arsenal of receivers for senior quarterback Steven Calvert and a solid group of running backs led by Darnell Rolle and Cameron Davis. Their defense is no slouch either with stars Deandre Wilder and David Hood leading the way. But can they live up to expectations and break through in difficult District 16-6A?
8. Northwestern: The Bulls brought in longtime Central defensive coordinator Max Edwards to revive their storied program and bring consistency. The district is brutal once again, but even if Northwestern doesn’t make the playoffs this year, it should take the first step toward returning to prominence.
9. American: The Patriots should continue their district championship streak despite the move up to Class 8A. But they need to improve drastically on offense if they are to make it count in the postseason.
10. Miami High: The Stingarees have one of the best athletes around in senior Keyshawn “Pie” Young. Miami High has a veteran group around him and better options at quarterback that should accentuate Young’s playmaking abilities and help it challenge Coral Gables for a playoff berth, which would be its first since 2010.
11. Mater Academy: A year after leading St. Thomas Aquinas to a state championship in Class 7A, coach Rocco Casullo takes charge of the Lions, who are hoping to win their first district championship in the revamped 16-7A.
12. Killian: Whenever everyone thinks the Cougars are down, they usually find a way to surprise people. But after losing one of the school’s most talented athletes ever in Jaquan Johnson, it remains to be seen if Killian can upend rivals South Dade and Southridge.
13. Coral Reef: The Barracudas’ acquisition of coach Javy Valdes and his Wing-T offense should give them a chance to claim one of District 15-8A’s playoff berths.
14. Belen Jesuit: Every couple of years, Belen’s opposition changes. The Wolverines’ knack of finding a way to the playoffs doesn’t. Don’t expect this to change even though the Wolverines’ district got tougher with the addition of Coral Reef.
15. Southwest: Just because Deundre Pickett-White and Trevon Sands graduated doesn’t mean the Eagles are done. Southwest has C.J. McWilliams and an explosive team that will play a tough schedule and likely remind people by season’s end why it has made the playoffs each of the past four seasons.
16. North Miami: After back-to-back 9-2 seasons, the Pioneers lost a lot to graduation and transfers. If the Pioneers’ youngsters come around by the end of the season, they might just get back to the playoffs.
17. Palmetto: Coach Mike Manasco enters his second season coaching his alma mater, and his Panthers are already showing improvement. Breaking through to the playoffs doesn’t look likely but expect a few more wins.
18. Hialeah: Veteran coach Steve Smith came back to the T-Breds where he coached two seasons during a previous stint. He should have Hialeah back in postseason contention.
19. Hialeah-Miami Lakes: With Central, Norland, Carol City and Northwestern as their district opponents, HML’s playoff chances are minuscule. But expect the Trojans to win a fair share of nondistrict games.
20. Braddock: Juan Torres takes over for longtime coach Frank Rojas and has one of the more talented groups the Bulldogs have had in recent years. Braddock might have enough to push Coral Reef, Belen and Southwest down the stretch.
21. Homestead; 22. Dr. Krop; 23. Miami Springs; 24. Miami Beach; 25. Reagan; 26. Doral Academy; 27. Ferguson; 28. Varela; 29. South Miami; 31. Goleman; 32. Hialeah Gardens; 33. Sunset; 34. Mourning; 35. Coral Park; 36. Westland Hialeah.