It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Chris Merritt.
The feeling was that, going into Saturday night’s Class 8A state championship game against Jacksonville Mandarin, the long-time Columbus coach, who has been chasing that elusive state-championship rainbow since taking over the program 18 years ago might finally get that brass ring.
But much like he had to do four years ago when the Explorers made it to the state final only to drop a 30-23 decision to Apopka, Merritt could only fret when the game was done over another lost opportunity.
Not only for him, but his players and a Columbus alumni base starved for a football championship following a heartbreaking, nailbiting 37-35 loss to Mandarin at Camping World Stadium.
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Instead of perhaps getting the much-sought-after celebratory water cooler bath, Merritt spent the first few minutes following the final whistle walking around the field trying to pick crying and sobbing players up off the field.
Predictably, when asked how much heartbreak it was for him personally, Merritt, the second-longest tenured coach in Miami-Dade County at the same school behind only North Miami Beach’s Jeff Bertani, deflected everything towards his players.
“Listen, the kids played their tails off......we’re just gonna keep fighting, that’s all you can do,” said Merritt. “It’s tough because it’s difficult to make it to this game and you would hope to get it done once you get here but it didn’t happen. We’re just going to go in there Monday, look at the film of this and figure out how to get back here again next year.”
Merritt and his Explorers discovered the hard way that all the buzz surrounding Mandarin quarterback Carson Beck who is headed to Alabama, was not empty hype as Beck turned out to be the real deal. He bordered on unstoppable as he completed 25-of-36 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s just a great quarterback and we knew coming in that he would be very active,” said Merritt of Beck. “And they’ve also got a talented group of skilled kids for him to throw to as well and it made it tough defensively.”
What also wound up hurting Merritt and his team was the lack of a running attack, the bread and butter of the offense all year. Columbus struggled to get the ground game going finishing with just 117 yards forcing them to rely on quarterback Brandon McDuffey to go to the air.
“They (Mandarin) came into the game with the idea of trying to take away our running game and force us to go up top,” said Merritt. “They loaded the box, put more numbers than we could block so we had to go to the air and I guess that’s how all five of our scores came. Brandon (McDuffy) did a good job of making things happen but we just came up a little short.”
Merritt then walked off to be with his dejected players, huddled up off in the end zone. to do his best consoling.
“Frustrating?” said Merritt walking off. “Sure it’s frustrating but in the end, all we could ask is that the kids play all the way to the end and that’s what they did. I’m proud of all of them.”