In a game head coach Jason Gibson tabbed a “must win,” the Columbus Lions defeated the High Country Grizzlies 57-44 on Saturday night at the Columbus Civic Center.
The win breaks the tie at fourth place in the National Arena League Standings. The Lions are 3-2, still looking up at undefeated Jacksonville and Monterrey and one-loss Lehigh Valley, while the Grizzlies dropped to 2-3.
“It really was (a must-win),” Gibson reiterated. “I figured worst-case scenario, if we get out of these first six games at 3-3, I think we can run the table the rest of the year based upon our schedule.
“We also just needed a win at home. It wasn’t specific that we had to beat High Country, who’s going to be a playoff team, but Jacksonville had this team 41-0 at halftime. I’m not throwing any awards out tonight, but a win is a win.”
It didn’t take long for the Lions to score on offense. After High Country kicker Michael Lima knocked in his first of three deuces on the opening kickoff, it only took three plays for Columbus to score the first touchdown of the game as quarterback Darren Daniel found Jarmon Fortson on a 35-yard pass.
“It’s always good to come out and score on that first drive,” Daniel said. “That’s what I was looking for, score early, score quick.”
For Daniel, it was another day at the office for him since taking the starting position at halftime of the Lions’ opening game against Jacksonville. He finished Saturday’s game 27 of 38 passing for 260 yards with five touchdowns, also rushing for a pair of scores.
“It’s pretty good,” Daniel said about the experience so far as the Lions’ starter. “I love playing in front of my hometown. I had the mindset coming into training camp thinking I was going to start. It’s always been my team. I try to keep my confidence up, stay prayed up, keep working out, stay at practice, and try to make it happen.”
“It’s a roller coaster,” Gibson said of Daniel. “He is so good, but then we turn the ball over (on an interception). We have to find a way to fix it, but he’s only played four football games and he’s playing at that level. Just wait until he has five years experience like these other guys.”
Again, the Columbus receiving corps came up big against the Grizzlies. Michael Reeve added another 100-yard receiving game to his resume with 104 yards on 10 catches and two touchdowns, while Jarmon Fortson finished with six receptions for 69 yards and a score. Durron Neal and Tristan Purifoy also had a receiving touchdown apiece.
“I love those guys,” Daniel said of his receivers. “I wouldn’t trade (Reeve) for the world. We’re clicking right now. It’s like a basketball player saying the rim is big; that’s how it is to us.”
“I’ve got the three or four best receivers in the league,” Gibson said. “You’re not going to stop Reeve, Fortson, or Purifoy. We had that combination to go short, go deep. They did a great job.”
The Lions defense, which actually came into the game last in the league in points allowed, clamped down in the fourth quarter and kept High Country off the scoreboard.
“We challenged them,” Gibson said. “We had two goals coming into tonight’s game, and we accomplished both of them. We challenged the defensive line. I had a few choice words, they walked away, and then they came up with three or four sacks.
“As the defensive line goes, we go. They got after it in the end. This is SEC country. Players in this area run with speed, run with power, and play physical football. We hadn’t done that all year long. Those last two or three drives, they turned it on.”
Now, the Lions set their sights on a rematch with the league-leading Jacksonville Sharks. The undefeated Sharks, which travel south of the border to Monterrey on Monday night, will host the Lions on Saturday night at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
“It’s just another game,” Gibson said. “But Jacksonville will be coming off a Monday night game in Monterrey, so it’s a short week for them. We have an opportunity.”
For Daniel, who was inserted into the Lions’ Mar. 17 home loss to Jacksonville after starter Mason Espinosa threw three interceptions, it’s a chance to face the Sharks for a full game.
“I’m ready for the opportunity,” Daniel said. “I feel like I almost brought us back last time, so from the beginning, it’s going to be a fight.”
Saturday at Columbus Civic Center
H – Michael Lima deuce, 15:00.
C – Jarmon Fortson 35 pass from Darren Daniel (kick failed), 12:51.
H – Malachi Jones 30 pass from Stephen Panasuk (kick failed), 11:41.
H – Lima deuce, 11:41.
C – Tristan Purifoy 3 pass from Daniel (Lindsey Wolfe kick), 8:01.
C – Kyle Griswould 2 run (Wolfe kick), 3:07.
H – Daniel Lee 20 pass from Panasuk (kick failed), 2:11.
H – Panasuk 1 run (Lima kick), 10:20.
H – Lima deuce, 10:20.
C – Daniel 1 run (Wolfe kick), 5:41.
C – Durron Neal 14 pass from Daniel (Wolfe kick), 1:53.
C – Wolfe 44 FG, 0:00.
H – Lee 40 pass from Panasuk (kick failed), 13:53.
C – Michael Reeve 7 pass from Daniel (Wolfe kick), 10:58.
H – Jones 6 pass from Panasuk (Lima kick), 6:09.
C – Daniel 1 run (Wolfe kick), 2:44.
H – Lee 6 pass from Panasuk (kick failed), 0:00.
C – Reeve 6 pass from Daniel (kick failed), 13:29.
Records: High Country 2-3, Columbus 3-2.
Next: High Country vs. Georgia, Sunday, May 7 at 3:30 p.m.; Columbus at Jacksonville, Saturday at 7 p.m.