BY ANDRE C. FERNANDEZ
Columbus football players lined up and counted down to midnight “New Year’s Eve” style early Monday morning.
For seven years, this is the way the Explorers have celebrated the start of a new football season.
Under the lights of their on-campus field-turf practice field, Columbus broke the ice on the start of official practice for Miami-Dade County high schools with a 90-minute session reminiscent of the longtime college basketball season-opening tradition.
“We try to get an eight-hour head start on everybody and try to get the most we can out of it,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “It’s something the kids and their parents have fallen in love with over the years. It starts the season off the right way.”
The traditional practice drew around 20 people the first year according to Merritt and has steadily increased over the years.
A crowd of approximately 150 filled a few of the bleachers surrounding the field to look at the squad they hope can keep Columbus in the hunt for another deep playoff push. Merritt said the practice culminated a full day of team activities at the school, which included several guest speakers and a spiritual retreat.
Columbus is coming off back-to-back state semifinal appearances in Class 8A, but graduated several key players from last year’s 9-5 squad.
Senior linebacker Nick McBeath, an FIU commitment, and junior quarterback Tucker Beirne, who will enter his second season as the Explorers’ starter, are among the team’s top returners.
Beirne threw for over 1,800 yards as a sophomore and is ranked No. 21 among Miami-Dade County Class of 2015 prospects.
The Columbus backfield is looking for new leaders after the graduation of Daryl Chestnut and Lorenzo Woodley, who combined for 2,294 yards and 38 touchdowns. Senior Oshton Armstrong, who had over 500 yards and seven touchdowns last season, appears to be the frontrunner.
“We graduated 40 seniors so we need every hour for this team to be together,” Merritt said. “This [practice] means a lot to us.”
Midnight practice could be a growing trend in South Florida as a few schools have discussed holding one next season. On Monday morning, Columbus wasn’t the only team working out.
In Broward County, Douglas High in Parkland was another school that held a 90-minute practice session that began at midnight.
The Eagles, who are coming off a 3-7 season, are entering their first season under new coach Willis “Peanut” May. After spending the past eight seasons compiling a 59-30 record at Hurricane High in West Virginia, May brought the tradition of midnight practice to Douglas. May will try to help an Eagles squad compete in a tough District 11-8A that includes Coconut Creek Taravella, South Plantation and much-improved Deerfield Beach.
Other South Florida teams were set to begin their practices either Monday morning or afternoon.
Under the new Florida High School Athletic Association’s policies for fall practices, teams are only allowed one practice (three hours max) and a walk-through allowed for the first week, all of which are to be non-contact. For the first two days, teams can only practice in helmets and shorts before being allowed to wear shoulder pads the next three sessions.
Full-contact practices are permitted from the sixth practice session onward and teams will be allowed to begin two-a-day sessions starting with their eighth practice session. Teams are not allowed to hold two-a-day sessions on consecutive practices, however, and cannot exceed 24 total practice hours in a week.
Preseason classics begin the weekend of August 22-24.
The first regular season game involving a South Florida team will take place August 24th when defending Class 4A state champion Miami Booker T. Washington takes on Georgia powerhouse Norcross High at 7 p.m. in a matchup of nationally-ranked teams. The game is slated to be televised on ESPN.