Years of frustration and watching Columbus celebrate at their expense came to an end for the Coral Gables Cavaliers on Thursday night.
Taking on the Explorers for the fifth consecutive year in the same round of the state playoffs, the Cavaliers came through with a series of big plays in the fourth quarter and hung on to knock off the Explorers 21-14 in a Region 4-8A semifinal at Tropical Park.
Gables, which lost three of four in semifinal matchups against its district rival, moves on to the regional finals. The Cavaliers (10-1) will face the winner of Friday’s game between Palmetto and Southridge.
Columbus ends its season 7-4.
“This was a lot of hard work, and a lot of determination by a group of dedicated kids,” Gables coach Roger Pollard said.
“We started filming our practice from across the street after we lost to them [14-7] in the regular season and it gave us a better vantage point to see what we needed to correct so we made a few corrections off of that. Ultimately the biggest difference for us tonight was that we came out to play and didn’t let little things that go wrong at times get to us. We stayed the course.”
The end came with 1:19 left and Columbus at midfield. That’s when Rashad Wildgoose picked off backup quarterback Nick Gonzalez’s pass. The Explorers had only one timeout so the Cavs took a knee three times.
“I saw their receiver do an out so I just sunk back and read the play and then jumped the rout,” Wildgoose said of his big game-clincher.
“Once I got that ball, all I could think about was hold on and don’t let it go and find a place to fall down on the ground. A win like this, finally beating Columbus means everything for our program and now we want to keep it going all the way to state.”
Leading 12-7 at the half, Gables fell behind when Columbus came out and put together a 12 play, 69-yard drive to open the third quarter, Joshua Jobe going over from a yard out on fourth and goal, putting the Explorers up 14-12.
After exchanging punts, Gables put together what would ultimately be its game-winning drive. Taking advantage of a short field following a short Columbus punt, the Cavs went 39 yards in 11 plays, quarterback Nick Galuppo sneaking over from a yard out to make it 18-14 following a failed two-point conversion.
Gables then added three more on a Sebastian Riella 36-yard field goal with 2:20 left setting up Wildgoose’s game-clinching pick.
“It was all about teamwork tonight, no one individual got this done, we got it done as a team,” said Gables running back Jamar Thompkins who led all rushers in the game with 100 yards on 11 carries. “We’re taking it all the way now. This train is on the move.”
Columbus couldn’t have gotten off to a better start as Jobe bolted 43 yards on the first play of the game to set the Explorers up at the Gables 14.
Three plays later Willie Davis went over from four yards to make 7-0.
But Gables got the game turned in its direction at the 5:02 mark of the first quarter as Derrius Perryman — younger brother of former UM star Denzel Perryman — broke through and sacked Columbus quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez for a safety.
When Kevin Romer returned the ensuing free kick 64 yards to the 20, the Cavaliers were in business and wasted little time. On the first play, Romer took a handoff and squared up and found a wide open Marlin Brooks in the end zone for a 20-yard score putting Gables up 9-7.
Gables then added a short Riella field goal to make it 12-7 but the biggest play of the night might have come on the last play of the first half..
That’s when Rodriguez, launching a deep Hail Mary throw, got clobbered and hit the ground hard. Rodriguez left the field dazed and shaky and did not return in the second half.
Said Pollard: “At the end of the day, my kids bought into the fact that only you can beat yourself. We were going to take some big punches from a very good football team and it was how we responded to those punches that would make the difference and tonight we just fought and fought.”
In an earlier version of this story, Columbus player Marcelo Rodriguez’s medical condition was inaccurate. He did not miss any games this season.