Columbus has played at Tropical Park often enough in the past year to get to know the 1-yard line well. It was just in front of the end zone where, almost exactly a year ago to the day Friday, the Explorers’ promising 2017 season came crashing to an end. It had blown a 22-point lead, but Columbus still had a chance to escape with a win until it fumbled the ball away at the right hash mark in the waning moments, letting Miami take its place in the state semifinals.
At this exact spot Friday, Chris Merritt gathered the explorers for a postgame speech. This time, the coach was celebrating a 54-28 win against South Dade and a spot in the Class 8A semifinals.
“We’ve been talking about it all year, saying, ‘Right hash, 1-yard line,’” Merritt said after the win in Miami. “We let an opportunity for a state championship get away last year and it wasn’t one player, wasn’t one play, but that’s where it ended. That’s how close we were to getting it done, and our goal was to break through that wall and get her done.”
The Explorers (13-0) broke through by leaning on Henry Parrish, a junior running back taking a star turn this season. The tailback ripped off multiple 50-yard runs and finished with 216 yards and three touchdowns on only 18 carries. He also caught three passes for 27 more yards and another touchdown.
Parrish and Columbus now await either Deerfield Beach or Palm Beach Central for the state semi next week. If the Bucks win Friday in Deerfield Beach, the Explorers will go on the road. If the Broncos win, Columbus will get to host Palm Beach Central back at Tropical.
This year, the Explorers were the team to make up ground as the Buccaneers (10-3) took an early 6-0 lead before Columbus responded with 20 unanswered points before halftime and 30 straight overall.
First, quarterback Brandon McDuffey hit Parrish on a slant for a 21-yard touchdown early in the second quarter. Then Parrish found the end zone himself, taking a pitch from McDuffey and finding a seam for a 12-yard touchdown with 3:01 left in the half. Just before halftime, Columbus recovered a South Dade fumble and capitalized with a 15-yard touchdown pass from McDuffey to tight end Michael Cruz-Bustillo. McDuffey, who is committed to the Florida Atlantic Owls, finished 16 of 23 with 215 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
The Explorers couldn’t ignore the similarities to a year earlier when they went into halftime. Last season, Columbus led by 22 at the break. This year, the Explorers held a 20-6 edge.
“The last thing at halftime we said was that we were there 12 months ago, that we had to come out and score on that first drive,” Merritt said. “We had to put the pressure on.”
Columbus got the ball first and on the second play of the half, McDuffey handed off to Parrish. The back got around the left edge and took off down the sideline for a 50-yard gain.
The Explorers ultimately settled for a short field goal. Still, it was exactly the start to the half they needed.
“We knew we had to come out with a bang,” Parrish said after the win, “so we handled that.”
Even as the Buccaneers chipped away with three second-half touchdowns, Columbus could lean on Parrish to keep South Dade at bay.
Parrish added two more touchdown runs in the second half. He went up the middle for a 12-yard score to respond to a Buccaneers touchdown and give Columbus a 37-14 lead.
In the final minutes, Merritt just wanted to let Parrish run out the clock on a blowout win. Parrish, though, took a handoff to the right side and found a seam. He was gone for a 60-yard score.
“I know the kid at Carol City’s pretty good, but I’m going to tell you right now: There’s not a better back in this county than Henry Parrish,” Merritt said, “and I think that he’s proved it against the best competition in the biggest games we’ve played this year.”