Coral Gables didn’t see its game Friday as a chance to see how it stacked up against Columbus.
The Cavaliers never had a doubt they could beat their longtime rivals.
“We always knew we could beat Columbus,” Gables linebacker Shakur Cooper said. “We had some discipline problems early in the season, but right now we don’t know who we’re going to face, but we’re shooting for 1-0 every week no matter who it is.”
Cooper, an FIU commitment, had multiple sacks as part of a defensive onslaught that helped the Cavaliers secure a 20-10 win over Columbus in a battle of unbeatens at Tropical Park Stadium.
Coral Gables (8-0) won its second district championship in the past three seasons in what was the fourth consecutive season the Cavaliers and Columbus (9-1) have finished as the top two teams in District 14-8A.
The two have played in a rematch each of the past three seasons, with Columbus winning two of the past three years.
To set up a fourth consecutive showdown, Coral Gables must get past Hialeah, which it will host in a regional quarterfinal. Columbus will play at American.
“It’s a lovely moment for us, but it’s bittersweet because we feel we could have won this three years in a row,” Coral Gables coach Roger Pollard said. “We still have to get better.”
Gables chalked up six sacks and continuously hounded Columbus’ short-handed offense. The Explorers started junior quarterback Orlando Hidalgo Jr. in place of injured starter Alex Ros, who sustained a minor collarbone fracture last week.
Columbus, which has a bye week before its opening-round playoff against American, is hoping Ros, a senior who has thrown for 1,461 yards, 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions, can return by the start of the postseason.
“We always play multiple fronts on defense and run different things at them no matter who the quarterback is,” Pollard said. “People are starting to believe in Coral Gables football once again.”
Gables forced three turnovers, including two interceptions in the second quarter, to build a 20-0 lead by halftime.
Following a 70-yard opening drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown run by Gables quarterback Voshon Waiters, Derrick Walker’s interception set up another Cavaliers scoring chance. A failed field goal attempt kept Gables from adding to its 7-0 lead.
Early in the second quater, the Cavaliers recovered a fumble when junior Kahvon Lovett pounced on the ball at the Columbus 2-yard line. Two plays later, Johnny Ford scored on a 2-yard touchdown run.
On Columbus’ next possession, Gables senior linebacker Robert Brown anticipated a screen pass perfectly, running through, intercepting Hidalgo’s toss and racing 10 yards to the end zone.
Columbus was held to 62 yards rushing and 172 total yards.
The Explorers didn’t find much offensive rhythm until the final seven minutes of the game, scoring twice. Hidalgo’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Courtney cut the deficit to 20-10. But after Gables ran off some time, the Cavaliers stopped Columbus on its final possession.
Cooper, who missed the first two games of this season with an ankle injury, said the Gables defense — at full strength in recent weeks — is finally hitting its stride.
“We had to come out fast and with high intensity,” Cooper said. “I promised my teammates I would give them 100 percent once I got back. This is our last year for a lot of us. We know we have the athletes, we just have to stay humble.”