With the painful memories still etched in their memories of a seven point loss to Apopka in the state championship game five months ago, the Columbus Explorers football team took to the field Friday night, hosting St. Pete Lakewood in a spring contest.
And while putting a 35-0 beatdown on Lakewood was nice, the final score of the game was perhaps a little less important to Explorers head coach Chris Merritt than was just getting some kind over overall idea of what he has in front of him as he and his kids prepare for next August when the games count for real.
“Overall I was pretty pleased with what I saw out there tonight but when you lose 41 seniors, there goes a lot of leadership, both on and off the field,” said Merritt. “So we’ve got a lot of guys who have been led, finding themselves in leadership positions now having them take the reigns over has been a big goal this spring and we think we’ve got it. We think we’ve got an idea of who is going to step up.”
Replacing quarterback Tucker Bierne will be a big hole to fill but Merritt watched his new quarterback Alex Ros play well on Friday as he threw a pair of touchdown passes, one to Dan Courtney the other to Orlando Hidalgo. Courtney caught two touchdowns on the night, the other from Nick Gonzalez. But Ros also proved to be quite mobile scrambling for close to 70 yards on the ground as the Explorers blew out to a 28-0 halftime lead before Merritt started substituting freely.
“You’ve got a kid in Tucker Bierne who was the all-time passing leader in school history so Alex (Ros) has some big shoes to fill,” said Merritt. “We got a glimpse of what he could do last year and I thought he performed well tonight. What we really like that we didn’t have with Tucker is his mobility and ability to make things happen with his feet.”
Another big hole to fill will be at running back where Ivan Smith was the big workhorse last season but is one of the 41 seniors Merritt loses. Yael Gomez and Chris Henderson will vie for that vacancy and each scored a touchdown against Lakewood on Friday night.
Defenses love pitching a shutout and the Explorers got theirs as Lakewood never made it to the red zone. Defensive end Josh Uche had a pair of sacks, one of six recorded by Columbus while linebacker Brice Handy led the way with double digit tackles.
“We’ve made it to the final four three of the last four years but that 7-5 year we had the year before last (2013) really kind of helped us because it put us in second-thought mode,” said Merritt when asked if making the state title game last December will make his team even more hungry to get back there but at the same time not allow them to fly under the radar. “Hey, we’re Columbus, we expect to have that bullseye on our back around here. We’re the private school everybody wants to knock off and we know our role. We’ll be ready to go in August.”