The Dirty Birds had cleaned up on the competition this season — until they got to the Columbus Explorers.
Columbus, which had been eliminated by Broward teams in two of the past four years, defeated host Flanagan 16-12 on Friday night in a Class 8A state semifinal.
Columbus quarterback Tucker Beirne threw two touchdown passes — one to wide receiver Austin Maloney and the winning score to tight end Danny Fernandez with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
“It showed that the best team came out — we were the ones who won,” Maloney said. “We worked so hard to get to state — since spring and summer that’s all we talked about.”
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Now that the Broward barricade has been busted, Columbus is headed to the state championship game for the first time in more than three decades.
The Explorers had lost to a Broward team in this same round in 2011 (Miramar, 14-6) and 2012 (Cypress Bay, 33-13).
Next week, Columbus (13-1) will play Apopka, which beat Manatee 48-14, for a state title that so far has eluded the Explorers. Columbus lost in the 1980 and 1982 state finals.
The Columbus defense, which entered Friday having allowed a combined total of seven points in the past five games, was touched for two touchdown passes from Ryan Stanley to Keavon Mitchell.
But Columbus held when it mattered in the frantic, final minutes, stopping a pass into the end zone and a fake punt, and overcoming a fourth-down pass-interference call.
Finally, with 56 seconds left, a Stanley pass intended for Mitchell fell incomplete, giving Columbus its victory.
As for Flanagan (13-1), its dream season is over.
Flanagan, which had never made it to the playoffs before last season, entered Friday having played five consecutive turnover-free games. During that span, the Falcons were plus-16 on turnovers.
The last time Flanagan had a turnover was on Oct.17 against Miramar, when the Falcons were intercepted twice.
On Friday though, Flanagan had a turnover — an interception by Fernando Escobar — and also fumbled six times, although the Falcons recovered them all.
“We got exactly what we deserved,” Flanagan coach Devin Bush said of the loss. “We didn’t execute. We didn’t play smart. We gave the game away.”
Columbus led 10-6 at halftime, with the teams trading leads and momentum.
The Explorers got a 27-yard field goal by Joseph Tolgyesi to take a 3-0 lead.
Flanagan answered with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Stanley to Mitchell on a bubble screen to the right side. Maurice Codner missed the extra point, leaving Flanagan with a 6-3 lead to close the first quarter.
Columbus came back with the most artistic play of the half, a 30-yard pass play over the top of the Flanagan defense. Beirne delivered the throw to Maloney, who spun around to make an excellent grab.
“I have tremendous pride for our kids who were overlooked and underappreciated,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “But our kids stuck together and ran the table.”
COL- FG Tolgyesi 27
FLA- Mitchell 9 pass from Stanley (kick failed)
COL- Maloney 30 pass from Beirne (Tolgyesi kick)
FLA- Mitchell 17 pass from Stanley (kick blocked)
COL- D. Fernandez 22 pass from Beirne (pass failed)
Rushing (att-yds) -- COL: Beirne 4-4, Smith 10-38, Fernandez 9-46. FLAN: Bordeau 1-0, Mitchell 2-6, Stanley 7-8, Granger 13-43.
Passing (comp-att-int, yds)-- COL: Beirne 10-25-0, 128. FLAN: Stanley 23-37-1, 215.
Receiving (rec-yds-TD) -- COL: Rollins 1-0, Smith 1-11, Fernandez 1-12, Wassman 2-18, Hernandez 1-19, Maloney 1-30, Fernandez 3-38. FLAN: Francis 1-(-1), Jackson 2-5, Collins 2-13, Foy 3-26, Spence 5-49, Mitchell 10-123.