Columbus enviously watched South Dade win its first state title last season.
The Explorers felt that if a few close defeats had turned out differently, it may have been them holding the championship trophy in the Citrus Bowl.
Columbus coach Chris Merritt hopes Thursday night’s performance at Harris Field is an indication his team has learned how to win such tough games.
Led by an offense that totaled 402 yards, including 214 rushing, the Explorers outlasted South Dade for a 45-34 season-opening win.
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“Since the spring we’ve been clicking and putting up points,” Merritt said. “These kids we hope have learned how to react in tight games. We had to come back a few times and then hold on to the lead.”
One such close defeat last season came against South Dade in the same season-opening game as Columbus missed a field goal in the closing seconds and dropped a 12-10 decision to the eventual Class 8A state champs.
Columbus later dropped a pair of close games to district rival Coral Gables that cost it the District 14-8A title and eventually its season.
Leading 38-34 with 4:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, Columbus had another victory seemingly close to slipping away. But the Explorers defense forced South Dade to punt after a sack of quarterback P.J. Coats on 3rd and 10 at South Dade’s 20-yard line.
The Explorers (1-0) put the game out of reach moments later after a 45-yard run by Ivan Smith set up an 8-yard touchdown run by E.J. Donaldson.
Smith totaled 100 yards on only four carries, one of which was a 47-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
Columbus quarterback Tucker Beirne also showed noticeable improvement from last season, completing 15 of 26 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Beirne also ran for a key 25-yard touchdown in the third quarter that put Columbus ahead 31-27 and gave it the lead for good.
Beirne’s top target was receiver Austin Maloney, who caught seven passes for 136 yards and scored a touchdown on a 31-yard toss from Beirne in the second quarter.
Merritt said Beirne had been limited throughout fall practice while he was recovering from a virus that hospitalized him for a week.
“He’s trimmed down and changed his body and added an element to his game people don’t expect,” Merritt said. “This is really the first time he’s been able to give it a full go. It was big for him to play deep into the fourth quarter because it’s the most he’s been able to do in three weeks.”
Prior to Beirne’s go-ahead score, there were seven lead changes in the game, as neither offense could be deterred.
Coats led South Dade’s own offense, completing 11 of 20 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown. Coats also ran for a touchdown and finished with 105 rushing yards on 11 attempts. Senior running back Johnnie Hankins finished with 79 yards on 19 carries and had three touchdowns.