SEFFNER — Like Brandon wrestling and Berkeley Prep volleyball, Armwood’s football program long ago dismissed the adage that prosperity arrives in cycles. For the Hawks, success isn’t periodic, it’s perpetual.
But if any season could be even remotely characterized as a rebuilding year for Armwood, 2009 seemed to be it.
“I’ve always said if you’re going to beat Armwood this is the year you’ve got to beat Armwood,” coach Sean Callahan said.
After watching five of their 2008 stars sign Division I scholarships, the Hawks entered the preseason with six returning starters (two offense, four defense). One, offensive linemen Fletcher Williams, had off-field issues that left his status unclear. The quarterback and top three rushers from ’08 were gone.
Further, the Hawks had spent the offseason installing a new “spread-gun” offense around transfer quarterback Josh Grady, and switching to a 3-4 defense to help better neutralize spread attacks. As a result, Callahan’s goal for ’09 was to make it to the second round of the playoffs.
“To make it there,” he noted. “I didn’t say win it.”
Tonight, they answer the proverbial bell for Round 3.
Fresh off a 49-3 romp over Largo, the Hawks (11-1) travel to Punta Gorda Charlotte for a Class 4A region final they’re favored to win. What once was feared as a down year has evolved into a delightful one for Callahan. The fragile ego system he once had to navigate, he says, has been supplanted by a far more coachable group.
“They’re talented but they are silly. You just never know what they’re gonna say or what they’re gonna do,” said Callahan, whose program can clinch its fifth state semifinal berth in the past seven seasons tonight.
“Last year I dealt with egos and (kids) that really thought they were better than they really were and didn’t want to conform to the team aspect. But this group here is really all about the team. I come off the field every day happy now. Last year I was walking off wondering what was my next problem going to be.”
The difference makers: Callahan notes the play of senior outside linebacker Coty Creech (48 tackles, seven sacks), whom he calls the team’s most improved player; the quarterback play and “calming influence” of Grady (1,553 passing yards, 18 TDs); and the development of a once-green offensive line.
Defensively, Armwood has flourished in the 3-4. Despite losing essentially its whole secondary and most of its linebacker corps, the Hawks are allowing only 113.3 yards a game. They enter their matchup with Charlotte, a wing-T team, having allowed only two previous opponents to amass more than 100 rushing yards.
Veteran defensive coordinator Matt Thompson singles out the contagious energy emitted by linebackers Jermaine McKinney (110 tackles, 13 sacks) and D.J. Hitchman (79 tackles).
“Like I’ve told the kids all year, any touchdown that we’ve had against us hasn’t been a broken tackle or somebody’s just run through us, it’s been alignment mistakes,” Thompson said. “If we can fix those alignment mistakes, we’re going to play pretty good defense.”
Charlotte’s hope: This will be one of the nights where the Hawks — the “rebuilding” Hawks — are out of alignment.
“Because next year,” Thompson said, “we should be good.”