Miami-Dade High Schools

Stubborn Columbus High defense faces tough task in Class 8A state title game

Said Columbus coach Chris Merritt about Saturday’s state championship game vs. Apopka: “Orlando is about to get invaded by a bunch of crazy Cubans.”
Said Columbus coach Chris Merritt about Saturday’s state championship game vs. Apopka: “Orlando is about to get invaded by a bunch of crazy Cubans.” Miami Herald staff

Columbus football legend Alonzo Highsmith is disappointed he won’t be at the Citrus Bowl on Saturday night to see his alma mater play in their first state championship in 32 years.

“I’ll be in Buffalo watching the game at a sports bar,” said Highsmith, a senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers for the past 16 years. “I really wish I could be there, but I’m happy my teammates from the 1982 team will be there to support them.

“I just told them how proud we were of them and to be the first team at Columbus to win the state championship. My favorite saying is ‘find an excuse to win.’ I told them to do the same.”

Friday afternoon before Columbus (13-1) heads out to Orlando for its Class 8A state championship game Saturday night at 7 p.m. against Apopka (10-4), several of Highsmith’s former teammates will meet with this year’s players at a pep rally and read them several letters penned by the 1982 team that lost the state final at Pensacola Woodham.

Highsmith, who was a defensive end at Columbus before moving on to become a standout running back for the University of Miami and then later spent six years in the NFL with the Houston Oilers, Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, remembers how different high school football was back then compared with the experience that awaits this year’s team.

“We had to win the district to get into the playoffs,” Highsmith said. “There weren’t many divisions. Northwestern, Jackson, Killian, all of us were together. I remember how hard it was just to win the district and then having to play Pensacola Woodham at their home stadium.

Highsmith said he and his teammates flew to Pensacola the day of the game, hung out at a local mall, ate lunch there and then took a bus to the stadium where a packed partisan Woodham crowd greeted them with a hostile environment.

“[Woodham] didn’t pass the ball, and ran the wishbone the whole game,” Highsmith said. “They were bigger than us. We still should have won the game. It’s crazy how times are different.”

Apopka, which is making its third consecutive trip to the state final, will likely have a large crowd making the short 16-mile drive to Orlando.

The difference this time for Columbus fans is it will be a roughly three-hour drive as opposed to a 10-hour drive or even a flight to Pensacola.

Columbus athletic director Chris McKeon said at least seven busloads of fans are expected to make the trip to Orlando.

“If it’s in relation to all the texts and emails I’ve been getting this week, we might as well have a million fans going,” said Columbus coach Chris Merritt, whose entire coaching staff is comprised of Columbus alumni. “Orlando is about to get invaded by a bunch of crazy Cubans. We’re going to travel well, for sure. There are a lot of alumni that are excited to make the trip, and it’s going to be a great weekend.”

Like Highsmith’s team in 1982, Columbus is facing a run-heavy opponent again at state in Apopka, which enters the weekend averaging 329.6 yards per game.

The potent ground game, led by running back Chandler Cox (6-2, 225), an Auburn commit, and right tackle Martez Ivey (6-5, 270), rated a top five overall prospect in the nation by Rivals.com, has helped the Blue Darters average 42.6 points per game. Cox and quarterback Demetri Burch have combined for 2,546 yards and 34 touchdowns rushing.

“This is probably the most physical front line that we’ve played since we faced Central earlier this season,” Merritt said. “Apopka runs a different offense, and they run it well. They get off the line and sustain blocks very, very well.

“We have to get away from zone drops and dialing up pressure to making our keys and playing our blocks and running to the football. They like to make you fall asleep getting 3 or 4 yards a run and then they try to get you with a play-action big play, and we can’t let our kids fall for that.”

Columbus’ defense has been up to the task of shutting down intimidating offenses throughout the playoffs.

And unlike the defenses of the early 1980s like Highsmith’s that had notable star power, Columbus has been stingy against explosive offenses without major college recruits leading the way.

Instead it has been a line averaging 6-feet, 230-pounds led by junior Josh Uche (6-1, 210), senior left tackle Alejandro Levy (6-1, 250), senior right tackle Dominick Devera (5-11, 235) and senior defensive end Peter Delatour (6-0, 225) that has held teams to a total of only 19 points in four playoff games.

Levy has a team-high 11 sacks, Uche has 81/2 sacks and Delatour has 10 tackles for loss. Senior linebacker Fernando Escobar (5-9, 185) has a team-high 85 tackles and anchors that unit along with a secondary led by senior J.R. Garrigo (5-9, 180).

“Our guys have been underappreciated not just on defense, but the whole team really, and that’s the way we like it as coaches,” Merritt said. “After the Killian game, I told the kids that the secret was out about us. The win over Flanagan was huge. There’s no hiding it anymore. We’re no longer under the radar.”

BREAKDOWN

CLASS 8A FINAL – COLUMBUS (13-1) VS. APOPKA (10-4), 7 P.M., SATURDAY, CITRUS BOWL

Coaches – COL: Chris Merritt (14th year, 129-36); APK: Rick Darlington (13th year at APK, 19th overall, 177-61).

State experience – COL: 0-2 (Third state appearance, first since 1982); APK: 2-1 (won state title in 2001, 2012).

The road to state – COL: d. NMB 31-0; Coral Gables 22-0; Miami Killian 33-7; Pembroke Pines Flanagan 16-12; APK: d. Oviedo 41-34; Winter Garden West Orange 42-0; Jacksonville First Coast 64-48, Bradenton Manatee 45-14.

Offensive probable starters – COL: WR Austin Maloney (6-1, 180, Sr.); LT Jason Rodriguez (6-0, 255, Sr.); LG Gabriel Necuze (6-2, 225, Sr.); C Kyle Mann (6-1, 240, Jr.); RG Matthew Deville (6-0, 250, Sr.); RT Kevin Housholder (6-2, 300, Jr.); WR Jerron Rollins (6-1, 180, Jr.); QB Tucker Beirne (6-2, 225, Sr.); HB Ivan Smith (6-0, 170, Jr.); FB J.P. Wassmann (5-10, 215, Sr.); TE Danny Fernandez (6-1, 190, Sr.); K Joseph Tolgyesi (6-4, 180, Sr.); APK: TE Caleb Hippensteel (Jr.); LT Reuben Lewis (Jr.); LG Blake Bailey (Jr.); C Julian Miller (So.); RG Dion Ross (Sr.); RT Martez Ivey (6-5, 270, Sr.); RE David Douglas (5-11, 160, Jr.); QB Demetri Burch (So.); WB J.J. Simmons (Sr.); FB Chandler Cox (6-2, 225, Sr.); FL Deshawn Massey (5-3, 150, So.); K Tyler L’Heureux (Sr.).

Defensive probable starters – COL: LE Josh Uche (6-1, 210, Jr.); LT Alejandro Levy (6-1, 250, Sr.); RT Dominick Devera (5-11, 235, Sr.); RE Peter Delatour (6-0, 225, Sr.); LB Fernando Escobar (5-9, 185, Sr.); LB Dean Maestu (5-10, 195, Jr.); LB Patrick Elias (6-0, 185, Sr.); DB Trajan Bandy (5-9, 170, So.); DB Zack VanDemark (5-9, 170, Sr.); SS Anthony Rosenfeld (5-10, 175, Sr.); FS J.R. Garrigo (5-9, 180, Sr.); P Joseph Tolgyesi (6-4, 180, Sr.); APK: LE Johnny Robinson (6-1, 265, Sr.); LT Jason Toussaint (6-3, 270, Sr.); RT Malik Dowe (Jr.); RE Gavin Johnson (6-3, 216, Jr.); LB Billy Caughell (6-2, 230, Sr.); LB David Britzius (6-1, 200, So.); LB Isaiah Ross (Fr.); DB Jarrell Tinsley (5-8, 165, Jr.); DB Sterden Pierre-Gilles (Sr.); DB Laquan Lewis-Hicks (Jr.); S Roddre Hardwick (Jr.); P Billy Caughell (6-2, 230, Sr.).

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