The game was already decided when Henry Parrish took his final carry late in the fourth quarter on Friday night against Deerfield Beach. Parrish’s Columbus Explorers were already heading to state, holding a three-touchdown lead with just more than two minutes left in regulation.
But after Parrish broke through a few tackles at the line of scrimmage on that final carry, his eyes fixated on the end zone.
“Once he sees daylight,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said, “it’s over.”
Sure enough, Parrish stormed his way down the left sideline for a 49-yard touchdown. It capped off a three-touchdown night for the junior who is starting to gain attraction from top college programs, including the Miami Hurricanes.
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And it capped off a 49-21 win for the Explorers over Deerfield Beach in the Class 8A state semifinal to advance Columbus (14-0) to the state championship game against Jacksonville Mandarin at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.
Columbus is now one victory from bringing home its first state football title in school history.
“We could make history,” Parrish said. “I feel like we can bring that home.”
If the Explorers win it all on Saturday, Parrish will be a big reason for it. The running back has had a breakout junior year that has turned into highlight-reel performance after highlight-reel performance in the playoffs.
For a quick synopsis:
▪ 266 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in a 38-21 regional quarterfinal win over district rival Coral Gables.
▪ 63 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown as well as a 50-yard receiving touchdown — all in the first half — in a 42-0 regional semifinal win over Palmetto.
▪ 216 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns to go with three catches for 27 yards and another touchdown in a 54-28 regional final win over South Dade.
▪ And 162 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the state semifinal win over Deerfield Beach.
All told, that’s 707 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns (11 rushing, 2 receiving) against four of Miami-Dade and Broward’s top teams.
“Henry’s the GOAT [Greatest of All Time],” wide receiver and defensive back Xzavier Henderson said. “I feel like he’s underrated. He’s the best of the best.”
He’s starting to get that attention now.
The Miami Hurricanes offered him last week, giving the junior four offers from Power 5 schools so far. The others: Indiana, Iowa and Pittsburgh.
“I knew it was going to come,” Parrish said of the UM offer, “but I just had to be patient and be humble. It came”
Parrish’s strengths come with his elusiveness and breakaway speed. The 5-10, 173-pound junior is slippery at the line of scrimmage, shimmying and shaking his way past charging defensive linemen and linebackers. If he breaks free, it’s tough to catch up to him afterward.
“I just follow my O-line, see my crease and hit it,” Parrish said.
Sounds simple enough.
Yet there Parrish was all season, carving up opposing defenses week after week.
And then there’s the matter of putting up that last long touchdown for good measure, a recurring move throughout the season. In addition to the late 49-yard touchdown against Deerfield Beach, Parrish broke off a 71-yard touchdown in the final minutes against Coral Gables and a go-ahead 75-yard touchdown run in the Explorers’ 28-21 regular-season win over Booker T. Washington.
“He’s just a real talented running back,” Merritt said after the win over Booker T. “All he needs is a crease and a seam and he makes defenses pay.”
If he can make Mandarin’s defense pay on Saturday, Columbus will have plenty of reason to celebrate. After three failed attempts in the state final — losing to Apopka in 2014, Pensacola Woodham in 1982 and Cantonment Tate in 1980 — this could finally be the year the Explorers win it all.
Henderson was at that 2014 game watching his brother C.J. Henderson, then a sophomore at Columbus.
“It hurt even watching them play,” Henderson said. “I don’t want that feeling.”
And while Parrish is the focal point on offense, but he certainly isn’t the only playmaker. Senior Kalani Norris, a Georgia Tech commit, has made plays on both sides of the ball at wide receiver and defensive back, as has Henderson. Tight end Gary Cooper, an Indiana commit, has been a steady red-zone threat this year for quarterback Brandon McDuffey.
The defense has put up five shutouts this year. Norris, Henderson, Rudy Puig and Branden Coleman have been shutdown players in the secondary, while Jeramy Passmore, Jabari Ishmael and Elias Morales have been standouts in the front seven.
And the team overall has found its stride in the postseason. Columbus outscored its first four opponents 183-70.
But all of that will be for naught if Columbus doesn’t show up on Saturday night at Camping World Stadium.
“I’m extremely happy for the kids,” Merritt said. “The school deserves this, but we’re not done.”