SEFFNER — Armwood coach Mike Wrenn relished the role of underdog heading into this baseball season.
After all, it was district rival Brandon that returned most of a team that last year rode momentum all the way to the Class 5A state semifinals.
But now, it's the Hawks (24-5) who can duplicate that feat with a win over Oviedo Hagerty in the best-of-three region final series Friday and, if necessary, Saturday.
Armwood has long been known as a football school, where the signs off Interstate 4 boast state championships and national rankings. The success of the baseball program has been limited — the Hawks were just five games over .500 last season and hadn't won a district championship since 1989.
But as the wins piled up for Armwood this season, so did the confidence. And now, it is on the verge of its first state final four in school history.
"We can see that state championship face-to-face right now," Armwood ace pitcher Robert Benincasa said. "I think everybody started realizing how far we could actually go. Right now our whole team is kind of clicking. It's really exciting."
Wrenn said it goes back to the fall, when the Hawks won a pair of tournaments at St. Leo and the University of Tampa. Along the way, they beat county powers Alonso, Jesuit and Sickles at those events.
"It let them know they could do it," Wrenn said. "Right then, I knew we had the chance to do something good."
Benincasa, who went from unknown to a Florida State signee, emerged as one of the county's top pitchers. Shortstop Zack Powers became a legitimate No. 2 starter. And a lineup built around run producers Joe Cartwright, third baseman Kristian Calibuso and Powers found a way to get the timely hits to win time after time.
"I think these guys stepped up to the plate," Wrenn said. "I think some of these guys like the pressure. It's more intense, and it keeps them going mentally and it keeps them sharp."
Benincasa said another big step was the Saladino Tournament in early April. At that event, the Hawks thrived in the one-and-done atmosphere, reaching the semifinals. In fact, they have only lost once since — winning three in a row to win their first district crown in 10 years.
Now, the Hawks have bigger goals.
"We may not have won Saladino, but we were able to see how far we could go come tournament time," Benincasa said.
"Now, nobody wants to end the season right now. We all want to keep playing. Nobody is tired of playing. Everybody wants to play and everybody wants to win. With everyone on the same page, everybody's just looking forward."