Columbus waited 32 years for another chance to win its first state football championship.
Explorers’ students, parents and faculty joined graduates spanning those three-plus three decades hours before kickoff and gradually filled the Citrus Bowl parking lot with a festive tailgate atmosphere rarely seen at the state finals.
But then Apopka spoiled Columbus’ party.
Propelled by their single-wing offense, Apopka amassed 268 yards, took an early 14-point lead and held off Columbus 30-23 in the Class 8A state championship game, denying the Explorers their elusive state crown.
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“I’ve never seen an offense like that,” said senior J.R. Garrigo, who had an interception. “We needed turnovers on defense, and we got that and got back into the game. We just came up a little bit short.”
Columbus (13-2) finished with its highest win total in school history and its third state finals appearance (1980 and 1982).
Apopka (11-4), which made its third consecutive appearance in the state final, won its second state championship during that span and third overall.
The Explorers fell behind 14-0 after two rushing touchdowns by Deshawn Massey on Apopka’s first two drives.
Three times, Columbus cut the deficit to one score.
The Explorers forced a punt and regained possession at their own 42-yard line with 5:06 remaining and trailing 30-23. Apopka didn’t allow Columbus to cross the 50, and two consecutive incomplete passes on third and fourth down turned the ball over on downs. Apopka then drove to Columbus’ 5-yard line before turning it back on downs, but by then Columbus had no timeouts and 49 seconds left.
Six plays later, Apopka was celebrating.
“We had come close three of the last four years, so I’m extremely proud of what we did this year,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “This is one of the best teams in the team sense that we’ve had here. That’s what gave us a chance in this game.”
The Explorers became one-dimensional on offense, rushing the ball only nine times for minus-11 yards. The rushing futility set a new state championship game record, surpassing the minus-10 yards Naples limited St. Augustine to in 2007.
Columbus chose to divert completely to the passing game, throwing the ball 47 times and amassing 283 yards through the air.
Senior Tucker Beirne completed 27 of those passes and threw three touchdown passes in the final game of his three-year Columbus career.
“We knew coming in that passing was going to be most important because they had a great run defense,” Beirne said. “We have the ability to throw the ball that many times and be successful.”
Senior wide receiver Austin Maloney, an FIU commitment, caught eight passes for 111 yards and a touchdown.
“We played our hearts out and had an amazing season,” Maloney said. “Since last season was a real nightmare, but we changed all of that this season.”
Beirne’s 11-yard touchdown pass to junior Jerron Rollins and a 33-yard field goal by Joey Tolgyesi cut Apopka’s lead to 14-9 at halftime.
But Apopka opened the second half by putting together a 12-play, 62-yard touchdown drive that took six minutes and four seconds.
Chandler Cox dove over the goal line to cap the drive with a 1-yard touchdown that was followed by a two-point conversion to put the Blue Darters ahead 22-9 with 5:54 left in the third quarter.
Still, Columbus kept itself in the game.
The Explorers answered with a 10-play, 72-yard drive that was capped by a great catch by Maloney to bring down an 11-yard touchdown pass from Beirne with 1:26 left in the third.
But Columbus’ defense, which had allowed only 19 points in the playoffs, couldn’t muster that one key stop to draw even with Apopka. A 22-yard touchdown pass from Cox to James Crider extended the lead to 30-16.
“A lot of people doubted us this season, and we always used that as fuel,” senior linebacker J.R. Garrigo said. “This was still one of the best experiences of my life. We lost, but I made it here with all my brothers, so I’ll never forget this.”
AP - Massey 3 run (L’Heureux kick)
AP - Massey 14 run (L’Heureux kick)
CO - Rollins 11 pass from Beirne (kick blocked)
CO - Tolgyesi 33 FG
AP - Cox 1 run (Massey pass from Burch)
CO - Maloney 11 pass from Beirne (Tolgyesi kick)
AP - Crider 22 pass from Cox (Burch run)
CO - Smith 10 pass from Beirne (Tolgyesi kick)
Rushing (att-yds) — COL: Beirne 3-(-9), Henderson 1-(-3), Smith 3-(-1), Fernandez 2-2. APO: Simmons 5-15, Burch 8-40, Cox 24-105, Massey 19-108. Passing (comp-att-int, yds) — COL: Beirne 27-47-0, 294. APO: Burch 1-1-0, 15, Cox 3-5-1, 67. Receiving (rec-yds-TD) — COL: Courtney 1-6, Smith 4-23, Pugh 3-26, Fernandez 3-33, Hernandez 4-35, Rollins 4-40, Maloney 8-111. APO: Crider 1-22, Simmons 1-23, Campbell 2-37.