The Columbus Explorers waited patiently as the clocked ticked closer to zero in the fourth quarter on Friday night. The anticipation, the excited, the joy was all right there on the sideline, waiting to burst.
Coach Chris Merritt hugged his coaching staff and players.
It was official: The Explorers are going back to state.
Behind three rushing touchdowns from junior running back Henry Parrish and three interceptions by the defense, Columbus defeated host Deerfield Beach 49-21 in the Class 8A state semifinal to punch their ticket to Orlando for a chance to win its first state title in school history. It’s just the Explorers fourth overall state championship appearance and its first since 2014.
“I’m extremely happy for the kids,” Merritt said. “The school deserves it. But we’re not done. This victory doesn’t mean anything unless we win it all next week.”
If Columbus looks anything like it has during its four playoff games so far, the Explorers should be in good shape. After all, Columbus has averaged 45.75 points in wins over Coral Gables, Palmetto, South Dade and Deerfield Beach so far to make it to Orlando.
And Parrish once again led the charge on offense. The junior, who picked up an offer from the Miami Hurricanes last week, finished with 162 yards and three touchdowns on the night, including a 49-yard touchdown with about two minutes left to put a stamp on the game and give Columbus’ sideline a little extra juice before the clock expired. His other two scores both came from 4 yards out, the first in the first quarter to open scoring and the other coming early in the fourth quarter to put Columbus (14-0) up 35-13.
“He was Henry Parrish,” Merritt said. “That’s probably one of the best run defenses in the state. He did quite a bit.”
So did the Explorers’ defense. They applied pressure on Deerfield Beach quarterback Derohn King all night, sacking him twice and intercepting three of his passes. It started on the first drive, when junior Xzavier Henderson picked off an ball near midfield and returned it back to the 7 yard line. Parrish scored two plays later.
“I was kind of beat, but he underthrew the ball,” Henderson said. “I went up for it and hoped for the best.”
He was outdone, though, by teammates Elias Morales and Kalani Norris, both of whom took their interceptions to the end zone. Norris also caught one of quarterback Brandon McDuffie’s two first-half touchdown passes.
“In the playoffs, the defense has been showing up,” Merritt said. “... They’re anticipating balls being thrown. Defense wins championships.”
Merritt and Columbus will find out if that’s true next Saturday when they play Jacksonville Mandarin for the Class 8A title.