Julian Watts previews the upcoming Columbus High football season
Phil Marino is here to set the record straight: Columbus High’s football season in 2018 was not a shock to himself or his players.
The Blue Devils won seven games last year, made the playoffs, and enjoyed a winning season for the first time since 2015. They were the only Muscogee County school to advance past the first round of the state playoffs, and had six players make the Ledger-Enquirer’s 2018 All-Bi-City first and second teams. Marino was named All-Bi-City co-coach of the year.
It was, objectively, one of Columbus’ best seasons in years. The Blue Devils hadn’t won a playoff game in 44 years.
But Marino knew the talent on his squad. He saw them practice each day. So it didn’t come as a surprise when the team finished third in Region 1-AAAA and upset No. 2-seed Salem in the Class 4A playoffs. They beat rival Northside by 31 points.
“Everybody knew how good we were,” Marino said. “When Columbus wins, people get a little surprised by that, but our program has been on the upswing since my first five years here.”
But that’s all in the past now, and the Blue Devils must replace 11 seniors, the majority of whom started.
That’s a tough task for any coach. It’s especially difficult for Marino, considering the academic rigor of the school at which he coaches and, as a result, the lack of roster flexibility he has compared to other schools.
Eighth-graders must have grades of 82 or higher in all classes. Transfers to CHS must have an unweighted GPA of 3.5 or higher. Any student who wishes to attend CHS must complete a three-hour admissions test, consisting of a math section, English section and an essay — fairly typical for a magnet school.
“The only kids we get are the kids who pass the test, their attendance is good, and their discipline is good,” Marino said. “People can talk about recruiting, but it doesn’t matter who I recruit if they don’t pass that test.”
Marino’s message to his players is clear: Academics come first. If a player is falling behind in the classroom, he said, that player should be “in that building,” he said, pointing to the school.
At a magnet school like CHS, the academic rigor does not let up. Running back and slot receiver Tre Peterson said he had homework “every night” during the first week of classes. It’s not uncommon for him to stay awake for hours after practice to finish work for the next day’s classes.
Peterson said it teaches discipline. For someone hoping to play college football, it’s an invaluable trait.
The workload is one of many challenges players face with classes back in session: The Blue Devils have a lot of work ahead of them, on the field, before the season kicks off.
So, on a sunny evening in Lakebottom Park, Marino and his 2019 Blue Devils are hard at work. It’s been a tough preseason for them: In addition to preparing somewhat inexperienced players for the season ahead, they must install plays and work on blocking schemes.
They also have had extremely limited work in full pads. The heat wave that swept through the southeast in early-to-mid August brought temperatures in the upper-90s, and heat indexes upwards of 100 degrees. This situation was not exclusive to CHS, but it added another wrinkle to an already complicated August for Marino and his coaching staff.
Marino’s voice echoes throughout Lakebottom, as curious onlookers jog around the paved track surrounding the practice field. He’s drenched in sweat — everybody at the park is, really — as the Blue Devils run passing drills against a full defense.
The expectations surrounding the program are arguably higher following last season’s success. But there’s no sense in predicting what could happen this year. There are too many unknowns.
Each of Columbus High’s All-Bi-City athlete last year (excluding honorable mentions) was a senior. That means new Blue Devils must step up to fill the void — players like Peterson, who has offers from Navy and Yale.
“Offensively, seven out of our 11 guys were seniors,” he said. Defensively, 10 out of the 11 were seniors … The chemistry was amazing.”
Peterson, who is learning to play the piano as his senior project (CHS requires all seniors to complete a senior project), said his younger brother, Davion Peterson, is in line to be the team’s starting quarterback. He said Davion had “no choice but to step up,” as a team leader, along with senior receiver Tajuan Wynn and defensive end/linebacker Julian Watts.
Columbus’ schedule includes games against state semifinalist Troup County, a rejuvenated traditional area power in Carver and a home matchup with Region 1-AAAA champion Cairo. The Blue Devils’ tilt with Troup comes Sept. 5, so fans will discover just what this team’s made of fairly early in the season.
The team did not play any preseason scrimmages, so the first look anybody aside from Marino and his coaches will have, will be their season-opener against Spencer on Sept. 23 (7:30 p.m.).
“We have a lot of good upcoming players that have been working hard,” Watts said. “They’ve had to work hard a lot. They’re doing a good job at filling in the spots we were missing.”
2019 Blue Devils schedule
- Aug. 23 - @ Spencer
- Sept. 5 - vs. Troup County
- Sept. 13 - @ Westover
- Sept. 26 - @ Carver
- Oct. 4 - vs. Cairo
- Oct. 11 - @ Americus-Sumter
- Oct. 19 - vs. Shaw
- Oct. 25 - @ Hardaway
- Nov. 1 - vs. Dougherty
- Nov. 8 - vs. Northside