When Miami High stepped onto the field with Columbus Thursday, it was supposed to be a battle of wills. The Stingarees representing the new flavor as a team with a new coaching staff and plenty of new talented pieces and the Explorers signifying the “old standby” – a perennially top-tier program with a tenured coaching staff.
After Miami High capitalized on Columbus’ early mistakes (two lost fumbles) and held a 14-3 lead at halftime, it was the Explorers that showed the poise and resiliency needed to rally back and hold on for a dramatic 21-20 district win over the Stings in front of a crowd of 1,200 fans.
Columbus (3-1, 1-0 District 14-8A) took a 21-14 lead 3:36 left in the fourth quarter, but Miami High responded on the ensuing kickoff when Johnny Ford darted past the Explorers kickoff coverage team for a 95-yard scoring return.
The Explorers, who will play Miami Booker T. Washington this coming Monday in a makeup game, blocked the extra point and that one point ended up being the deciding factor after the Stingarees’ couldn’t produce a rally of its own.
Miami High (3-1, 0-1) completed a couple of passes on the final drive, but it was inconsequential because it was deep in Columbus territory with no timeouts remaining.
Columbus head coach Chris Merritt, who became the longest tenured coach at a Miami-Dade private school once Rich Stuart retired at Miami Belen Jesuit, said his team’s rally was a simple matter of eliminating mistakes.
“The defense did a great job on the last drive,” Merritt said. “The fumbles killed us tonight, though. We moved the ball quite a bit between the 20’s but we couldn’t execute in the red zone. At halftime, we told them to ‘stay the course’ because our game plan was solid. We executed in the red zone in the second half and that’s what allowed us to get back into the game and take the lead.”
The Explorers had a chance to ice the game on their drive following Ford’s big return. Columbus marched down to the Miami High 17-yard line after a handful of Henry Parrish runs, but threw a pair of incomplete passes on third and fourth downs and ended up turning the ball over on downs with 1:17 left to play.
Parrish, who Merritt confirmed sat out the first quarter for disciplinary reasons, finished with a team-high 97 yards (90 in the second half) and an impressive 18-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that brought Columbus within four points.
“When [Parrish] got in the game he was obviously a spark for us in the second half. That kid is dangerous when he’s got running room,” Merritt said.
The biggest play of the night, though, came from junior receiver Kalani Norris. After Columbus kept its drive alive on a fake punt run by Gary Cooper, Anthony Arguellas found a wide-open Norris near the sideline as he ran 54 yards untouched to the end zone – he also caught the ensuing two-point conversion – to put Columbus up 21-14.
Norris ended up with a game-high seven catches for 133 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. Arguellas finished 16-of-28 for 187 passing yards as well as 40 rushing yards.
Miami High was at a bit of a disadvantage Thursday since it played without head coach Sedrick Irvin on the sideline. Irvin, a Miami High alum in his first season coaching his alma mater, was unavailable for undisclosed reasons. Assistant coaches led the team Thursday. Irvin’s status for the remainder of the season is unclear.
The Stingarees built their early lead through big plays after Explorers mistakes. After Columbus’ first offensive drive of the day stalled and ended with a missed field goal, the Stingarees scored on the very next play – an 80-yard dash around the outside by Ford.
Miami High, which will face Coral Gables this coming Monday in a very important district game, extended their lead late in the second quarter when their defensive pressure got to Arguellas and created a strip-sack, which Leslie Smith returned 85 yards for a score.
Without the explosive plays, Miami High’s offense was anything but fluid. The Stings totaled 135 rushing yards – 116 belonging to Ford – and just 65 passing yards while committing 18 penalties for 117 yards.
With the victory, Columbus “holds its own destiny” in district play. Under the new playoff point system, only the district champion is guaranteed a spot on the postseason bracket and the Explorers put themselves in the driver seat to claim that spot by taking down Miami High while also being favored in their Oct. 27 showdown with Coral Gables.
“We should’ve played better today, but at the end of the day – a win is a win,” Merritt said. “We’ve taken the district lead for right now and we’ll watch to see how things play out with [Miami High and Coral Gables] on Monday and we’ll be ready to go for our final game against Gables.”