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Columbus learns: There’s more to life than football

Explorers’ loss in state final is just one lesson in season filled with tougher ones

Columbus captains (from left) Dylan Perez, Jeramy Passmore, Luis Cristobal and Jordan Griffin pose with coach Chris Merritt with the runner-up trophy. Perez is holding up the No. 30 of defensive back Ari Arteaga, who died July 28 in a car wreck.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Columbus captains (from left) Dylan Perez, Jeramy Passmore, Luis Cristobal and Jordan Griffin pose with coach Chris Merritt with the runner-up trophy. Perez is holding up the No. 30 of defensive back Ari Arteaga, who died July 28 in a car wreck.

ORLANDO | From the summer to state-final gameday, Christopher Columbus’ football team found out this season that there was more than football. Yet the Explorers nearly accomplished their state-title mission Dec. 8, falling a failed two-point conversion short in a 37-35 loss to Jacksonville Mandarin in the Class 8A state football final.

Columbus quarterback Armando Parra is consoled by Columbus fan Minnie Catala, president of the Columbus High Quarterback Club, after the Explorers' 37-35 loss to Mandarin in the FHSAA 8A football final Dec. 8.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Columbus quarterback Armando Parra is consoled by Columbus fan Minnie Catala, president of the Columbus High Quarterback Club, after the Explorers' 37-35 loss to Mandarin in the FHSAA 8A football final Dec. 8.

Junior Brandon McDuffey completed 15 of 25 passes for 293 yards and five touchdowns. But he also was sacked four times and threw three interceptions. McDuffey completed passes to six different receivers, led by junior Xzavier Henderson’s seven catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns. Junior Henry Parrish Jr. ran for 147 yards on 23 carries, most of it in the second half.

Mandarin (11-4) won in its first state-final appearance because of University of Alabama commitment Carson Beck. The Mandarin junior burned the Explorers for 329 passing yards and five touchdowns on 25-of-36 passes. Most of those came on quick outs, although Beck proved he could hit the long gainers.

“The windows he can throw into is pretty amazing for a kid his age,” Columbus defensive lineman Dylan Perez said. “I look forward to seeing him develop to see what kind of college player he turns into.”

Still, the reminders that there’s more to life than football abounded.

Lesson No. 1 came before the season started: the loss of defensive back Ari Arteaga on July 28 in a fatal car wreck. Memories of Arteaga permeated the Columbus side of the stadium, from signs and flags with Arteaga’s No. 30 to Dee Ford switching from No. 1 to No. 30.

Columbus coach Chris Merritt credited his team’s 45 seniors to helping them overcome.

“They showed a lot of good leadership, a lot of good character,” Merritt said. “And they led the team through some valleys after losing a teammate.

“Football is not just about Friday night games. Football is about life. Losing Ari taught our players a very tough life lesson. We all lose somebody. It’s how you respond and react to adversity through God and everything we teach that led them to have the season we had.”

Lesson No. 2 came this past weekend, when the Explorers had several dignitaries visit. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was on the sidelines. Father Miguel Gonzalez, Columbus class of 1986 and rector of Orlando’s St. James Cathedral, celebrated Mass in the morning with the team for the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

“It was awesome. His brother does our weekly chapel for us during the season,” Merritt said. “Listening to him talk and hear his voice, he’s a Columbus guy. The kids found out this week that Columbus is everywhere.”

Even in Orlando, where the Explorers wanted to win their first state title. Merritt had said last year they left a state title “on the table. The kids have been working really hard all the way to this point to get us here,” he said. They surpassed their 2017 regional-final finish, but they wanted to finish the task.

Merritt said each game turns on four or five plays. “What brought us here was that we won those four or five plays,” he said.

Columbus receiver Xzavier Henderson outraces Mandarin defensive back Travis Moss during Henderson's 71-yard touchdown reception early in the first quarter.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Columbus receiver Xzavier Henderson outraces Mandarin defensive back Travis Moss during Henderson's 71-yard touchdown reception early in the first quarter.

Columbus defender Elijah Morales tackles Mandarin receiver Darian Oxendine during the third quarter Dec. 8. Morales had 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Columbus defender Elijah Morales tackles Mandarin receiver Darian Oxendine during the third quarter Dec. 8. Morales had 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The game came down to halves. Mandarin won the first half by only slightly more than Columbus won the second half. Beck threw three touchdowns in the first half to help the Mustangs build a 24-14 lead. Beck hit receivers Demario Douglas and Kris Mitchell with quick passes to the outside. Then the receivers would often break several tackles for long gainers. Douglas ended with nine receptions for 141 yards and four touchdowns, while Mitchell added seven catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.

“They knew their offensive line wouldn’t be able to keep up with our pass rushers,” said Perez, who has committed to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. “They were throwing quick screens, quick hitches. They knew we were coming the whole game.”

Mandarin also benefited from a couple of first-half interceptions. Darian Oxendine picked off McDuffey early in the second quarter, setting up a touchdown that put the Mustangs up 17-7. After both teams traded touchdowns for a 24-14 Mandarin lead, Columbus rallied to try to sneak in another score before halftime. Douglas, however, picked off a deep pass to erase a Columbus threat.

As both teams kept slugging in this heavyweight fight, Columbus began forcing Mandarin into mistakes in the second half. Rudy Puig, who had 12 tackles, stuffed a Mandarin running back short on a fourth-down carry. Perez sacked Beck and caused a fumble to force a punt. Henderson caught a 46-yard touchdown pass on the next play to bring the Explorers within 24-21.

“We had to come out and try to keep our head up, and it hurts,” Henderson said. “First half it was all mental. We didn’t do the little things.”

Douglas’ 39-yard touchdown grab put Mandarin up 30-21, but the Mustangs missed the extra-point kick to give Columbus an opening.

Beck appeared to put the game away on the next series with his 29-yard touchdown strike to Douglas for a 37-21 lead. But Kalani Norris outdueled a Mandarin defender for a 32-yard touchdown catch and Parrish Jr. ran in the two-point conversion to pull Columbus within one score – 37-29 with 9:23 left in the game.

Then Dee Ford – who switched out his No. 1 for Ari’s No. 30 jersey – forced Jennings to fumble and Maximus Villar recovered at the Mandarin 49 to give the Explorers one last shot with 4:14 left.

Parrish, who led all rushers with 147 yards on 23 carries, had runs for 21 and 12 yards to set up McDuffey’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Henderson with 1:17 left. That left the Explorers needing a two-point conversion to force overtime. Mandarin stuffed Parrish’s two-point run at the line of scrimmage, preserving its victory.

Perez said that the Explorers’ success came from the seniors helping to develop their younger players into players who can handle the fire of the game. “I think it’s more about developing our players rather than changing our scheme or recruiting,” he said.

Next year, juniors such as McDuffey, Henderson and Parrish will serve the team as leaders. Merritt promised that the team will begin working this week toward taking that last step to a state title. Henderson said he has faith that he and his teammates can put in the work to get there.

McDuffey said something else might also help: “Just keep the chip on our shoulder, come out hard and do the same thing. Come back to this game and win this game.”

Columbus defensive tackle Dylan Perez accepts the FHSAA's Henry O. Langston Award given to the each state finalist's top scholar-athlete. Perez has committed to accepting an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Columbus defensive tackle Dylan Perez accepts the FHSAA's Henry O. Langston Award given to the each state finalist's top scholar-athlete. Perez has committed to accepting an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.



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