For a little over a quarter, Coral Gables looked like its season was slipping away in the pouring rain against Columbus Thursday night at Tropical Park.
Less than 24 hours later at Traz Powell Stadium, the Cavaliers regained full control.
Daniel Hernandez’s 48-yard field goal with 50 seconds remaining put Coral Gables ahead for good in a 34-26 comeback win against Columbus in a Region 4-8A semifinal Friday afternoon.
Hernandez had missed a field goal earlier in the game, but told Gables coach Roger Pollard to trust he could make the crucial kick.
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“Coach asked me if I could kick it, and I told him let’s do it,” said Hernandez, whose field goal was the longest ever in the playoffs by a Gables kicker. “I never doubted that I had the range. Everything was perfect, the snap, the hold and I just drilled it. I knew it when it left my foot that it was going right through and I had room to spare.”
Moments later, Jontavis Testa’s 52-yard interception return for a touchdown — the Cavaliers’ third of the game — sealed the Cavaliers’ first playoff win ever against Columbus (7-5).
Coral Gables (11-1), which won its second playoff game in a season for the first time since 1985 and secured its first 11-win season since 1969, will host either Killian or South Dade next week in the regional final. Killian is scheduled to play South Dade Saturday at 1 p.m. at Tropical Park.
“This win shows how much this team believes,” Pollard said. “Lightning struck only once last night and you hardly ever see that. Not too many times in life do you get second chances and these guys fought their butts off to beat a great program like Columbus.”
The sole lightning strike prompted the postponement of the game Thursday night after the teams played until the 10:49 mark in the second quarter under heavy rain. Coral Gables fumbled four times and had difficulty even gripping the football at times.
Columbus took a 13-0 lead recovering a fumble at the Gables’ 5-yard line before the game was stopped.
On the first play Friday, the Explorers extended the lead to 20-0 on Oshton Armstrong’s 1-yard run.
In dry conditions and on Traz Powell Stadium’s field turf, Gables finally got its offense going.
Following a missed field goal, Mark Wynn came up with his second of two interceptions to set up Gables first touchdown. Senior quarterback Dijion Smith found Antiwone Johnson in the end zone from 9 yards out. On Gables next drive, Smith hit Shaquery Wilson with a short pass after which he turned down the sideline and rumbled 68 yards for a score that cut Columbus’ lead to 20-17.
Gables’ defense intercepted Columbus quarterback Tucker Beirne three times, and shut down its running game in the fourth quarter limiting the Explorers to 60 rushing yards overall.
“We all love each other around here,” said Wynn, who has eight interceptions this season. “Coach Pollard tells us that we never give up and we didn’t care when we were down by 20. We knew we could come back on them.”
Coral Gables overcame a couple of costly setbacks during its rally.
After Gables two touchdown passes, the Explorers put together a long drive capped by Beirne’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Jose Alvarado. Gables blocked the extra point keeping the deficit at 26-17.
Smith appeared to have scored on a long touchdown run on the ensuing drive with six minutes remaining, but was ruled to have fumbled as he was going into the end zone. Columbus recovered for a touchback.
But after forcing the Explorers to punt, Antiwone Johnson returned the kick 60 yards for a touchdown to cut Columbus’ lead to 26-24.