Columbus has spent all season awaiting their shot at redemption from a year ago -- maybe even to its detriment. The Explorers made it all the way to the Class 7A championship in 2018, only to fall two points short of their first state championship. Since the crushing loss in Orlando, Columbus has withstood a coaching change, significant roster overturn and a stretch of four losses in five games in the heart of the 2019 season.
Elijah Roberts admits maybe the Explorers were looking ahead to the playoffs too much. Dave Dunn attributes it mostly to all the changes Columbus has experienced. Either way, the Explorers have gotten back close to the level they expect to play. They’re peaking at the right time and are now only three wins away from their shot at redemption after a 50-14 rout of Coral Gables in the Region 4-8A quarterfinals Thursday in Miami.
“We went through some growing pains and there’s times we looked pretty good and there’s times we looked pretty bad. It is what it is and you are what your record is,” said Dunn, the Explorers’ coach. “I think our guys really have the mindset of every day we’re going to get better and that’s what it was, and they knew that each day they were getting better at the offense, getting better at the defense.”
The Explorers (7-4) now await the winner of Stoneman Douglas’ game against Miami on Thursday in Parkland. Columbus, the No. 2 seed in the region, will host the winner back at Tropical Park next Thursday for the region semifinals.
Columbus began the 2019 postseason against the by going back to what it did best in 2018: handing the ball to Henry Parrish. The running back, orally committed to the Pittsburgh Panthers, scored the Explorers’ first four touchdowns, then headed to the bench for the entire fourth quarter with Columbus leading the Cavaliers, 37-14. The senior finished with 95 yards on 13 carries, plus two catches for another 48.
He jump-started the Explorers’ offense on the first possession through the air. Columbus faced a third-and-6 situation just four plays into the game, so it set up a screen to its star halfback. Quarterback Brandon McDuffey found Parrish in space and the tailback weaved his way 42 yards, across midfield and deep into Coral Gables territory.
Five plays later, Parrish scored the opening touchdown from a yard out.
“We were able to rest Henry today,” Dunn said, “and a lot of times when you’re trying to close out a game you’ve got to use your workhorse.”
The Cavaliers hung around throughout the first half with the help of a defensive touchdown and one long touchdown drive before Columbus ran away from the district rival in the second half. Coral Gables managed just 5 yards in the second half.
The disappointing middle of the season now feels as much a distant memory for the Explorers as their loss to Jacksonville Mandarin in the title game last year. With three straight wins, Columbus feels like it’s back on track.
“I feel like we were looking ahead to the playoffs and that’s why we had a little loss. It is a new team,” said Roberts, a star defensive lineman orally committed to the Miami Hurricanes. “All week, we just preached everyone is undefeated. Everyone’s 0-0. Everyone has zero wins. Everyone has zero losses. It doesn’t matter how you got to the playoffs. You’re here now, so now you just take it one game at a time. We feel like we’re the best team in 8A, so it’s time to play like it now.”