Po­tent Ex­plor­ers head­ing to 8A ti­tle game

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JOR­DAN MCPHER­SON jm­cpher­[email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

The Colum­bus Ex­plor­ers waited pa­tiently as the clocked ticked closer to zero in the fourth quar­ter on Fri­day night. The an­tic­i­pa­tion and joy was all right there on the side­line, wait­ing to burst.

Coach Chris Mer­ritt hugged his coach­ing staff and play­ers.

It was of­fi­cial: The Ex­plor­ers are go­ing back to state.

Be­hind three rush­ing touch­downs from ju­nior run­ning back Henry Par­rish and three in­ter­cep­tions by the de­fense, Colum­bus de­feated host Deer­field Beach 49-21 in the Class 8A state semi­fi­nal to punch its ticket to Or­lando for a chance to win its first state ti­tle in school his­tory. It’s just the Ex­plor­ers’ fourth over­all state cham­pi­onship ap­pear­ance and their first since 2014.

“I’m ex­tremely happy for the kids,” Mer­ritt said. “The school de­serves it.

But we’re not done. This vic­tory doesn’t mean any- thing un­less we win it all next week.”

If Colum­bus looks any­thing like it has dur­ing its four play­off games so far, the Ex­plor­ers should be in good shape. Af­ter all, Colum­bus has av­er­aged 45.75 points in wins over Coral Gables, Pal­metto, South Dade and Deer­field Beach to make it to Or­lando.

And Par­rish once again led the charge on of­fense. The ju­nior, who picked up an of­fer from the Mi­ami Hur­ri­canes last week, fin­ished with 162 yards and three touch­downs on the night, in­clud­ing a 49-yard touch­down with about two min­utes left to put a stamp on the game and give Colum­bus’ side­line a lit­tle ex­tra juice be­fore the clock ex­pired. His other two scores both came from 4 yards out, the first in the first quar­ter to open scor­ing and the other com­ing early in the fourth quar­ter to put Colum­bus (14-0) up 35-13.

“He was Henry Par­rish,” Mer­ritt said. “That’s prob­a­bly one of the best run de­fenses in the state. He did quite a bit.”

So did the Ex­plor­ers’ de­fense. It ap­plied pres­sure on Deer­field Beach quar­ter­back Derohn King all night, sack­ing him twice and in­ter­cept­ing three of his passes. It started on the first drive, when ju­nior Xza­vier Hen­der­son picked off a pass near mid­field and re­turned it back to the 7-yard line. Par­rish scored two plays later.

“I was kind of beat, but he un­der­threw the ball,” Hen­der­son said. “I went up for it and hoped for the best.”

He was out­done, though, by team­mates Elias Mo­rales and Kalani Nor­ris, both of whom took their in­ter­cep­tions to the end zone. Nor­ris also caught one of quar­ter­back Bran­don McDuffie’s two firsthalf touch­down passes.

“In the play­offs, the de­fense has been show­ing up,” Mer­ritt said. “… They’re an­tic­i­pat­ing balls be­ing thrown. De­fense wins cham­pi­onships.”

Mer­ritt and Colum­bus will find out if that’s true next Sat­ur­day when they play Jack­sonville Man­darin for the Class 8A ti­tle.

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