A sea of white jerseys joyously met at midfield to celebrate Columbus’s first Bronx A division title in five years. As one, the Explorers hopped up and down together like pogo sticks, their index fingers pointed skyward.
“We were just so proud,” senior midfielder Tavaree Hyatt said.
Unseen at the bottom of the pileup was Alhoussain Bah, a talented sophomore striker who had as much a hand in the crown as any of his teammates.
In his first year of high-school soccer, Bah scored eight goals, including the go-ahead tally in the division clincher, a left-footed chip four minutes shy of full time to seal the 2-1 win over Truman, Columbus’s chief rivals.
“That’s what he’s been doing all year,” Columbus coach Jason Renick said. “He’s cool under pressure.”
The Explorers enjoyed a solid season last fall, finishing second behind Clinton. Lacking punch and explosive finishers up front, Columbus lost in the opening round of the city playoffs. When spring tryouts began, and Renick saw Bah and Stephen Furze, a first-year senior striker, he had a feeling the Explorers’ scoring problems would fade. With 19 goals between the two, many of them the go-ahead variety, and 12 assists, scoring hasn’t been an issue.
With midfield anchored by four-year starter Hyatt, and the consistent performers in the back returning in front of keepers Besim Berisha and Keton McCrobie, Columbus has owned its division, winning nine of 11 matches. Its only hiccups were ties to Truman and Lehman. Having already beaten the latter, Wednesday afternoon was a chance to not only capture Bronx A, but to do so with an exclamation point.
Like the first match, this one was evenly contested, each team scoring on a penalty shot, Hyatt in the 10th minute for Columbus and Fitzroy Ferguson in the 48th for Truman.
Winning balls with their feet instead of their heads, the Mustangs’ forte, the Explorers owned the game’s final 20 minutes. There were countless missed opportunities until Bah finished a beautiful feed over three Truman defenders from sophomore midfielder Daniel Mamo. All alone on goal, he controlled with his chest, dribbled in patiently, waited, and struck the division-winning tally.
It was just the latest example of what a difference Bah has made. Factoring in Furze on the other side has changed everything about Columbus.
“That’s what was missing last year,” Hyatt said. “Our forwards dribbled too much. They were pretty players. (Furze and Bah) just put the ball in the net when it’s needed under pressure.”
Added Renick: “It completed our team.”
Bah wanted to play on last year’s team, but came to Renick too late – the team had already been constructed and its roster filled out. So he told the coach he would be there next year.
“I’ll be waiting,” Renick says he replied, later adding: “I’m glad he’s here.”
For Truman, the loss wasn’t nearly as frustrating as the first meeting, which ended in a tie. Many of the Mustangs angrily left their home field that day vehemently complaining to officials about a penalty kick awarded to Columbus they felt should never have been called. But when the rematch ended, Truman (6-2-3) offered a tip of the cap. Coach Ricardo Furriel applauded his players’ efforts, telling them it proved they can play with anyone in the Bronx.
Ferguson, the center midfielder, credited Columbus (9-0-2), calling the Explorers “a good team,” but he was, of course, disappointed with the result. He said the Mustangs came into the game too aggressive, pushing up on far too many occasions, decisions that opened up counterattacks for their speedy counterparts. On the deciding goal, they had just three defenders back.
“We wanted to score too much,” Ferguson lamented. “We have to go back to the drawing board.”
Columbus, meanwhile, can expect a high seed for the upcoming city playoffs, and possibly an extended run.
The year before Renick took over, in 2003, was the last time Columbus won Bronx A. The program also disappointingly lost early in the postseason. Last season, the Explorers made it to the second round, the longest advancement in Renick’s four seasons furthest. This group may go even further.
“I think,” Renick said, “we’re blossoming at the right time.”