SEFFNER — The Armwood Hawks were sluggish. The coaches knew it. The players knew it. The parents and fans knew it.
The Hawks weren't playing bad baseball, but they weren't lighting Hillsborough County up like they expected coming into the season. Armwood had just wrapped up the Saladino Tournament during spring break with another uninspired loss, this time to Riverview. That defeat left the Hawks at 12-9, barely above the pedestrian .500 mark.
"We thought we were going to come out here in the beginning of the year and just start running teams," outfielder/pitcher Tyler Alexander said. "And really we were just going through the motions and not taking teams seriously."
So at the first practice after the Saladino Tournament, Jodi Fameree, whose sons Jackson and Jordan play for the Hawks, had a talk with the team. He spoke about accountability and putting the team over individuals. He said the parents could see the lackadaisical attitudes the Hawks were lumbering around the field with and how it wasn't a good representation of the kind of talent Armwood possessed.
"I think it opened up a lot of people's eyes to hear it from a parent from the outside rather than a teammate or coach from the inside," Alexander said. "I think that started to turn things around."
Armwood hasn't lost since.
The Hawks look to return to the state final four as they travel to meet nationally-ranked Lake Wales tonight at 7 in the 5A region final.
"From the beginning to the middle to the end (of the season)," Armwood coach Mike Wrenn said. "It's been a roller coaster."
Indeed it has. Armwood started strong, winning its first four games. The Hawks followed that up by dropping four-of-the-next- five, including a pair of district contests. They then went 6-3 heading into the Saladino before losing two-of-three at the tournament.
"It was frustrating," Alexander said.
Wrenn had a hard time putting his finger on the Hawks' troubles. The only constant was their inconsistency.
"The talent was there," he said. "But for whatever reason, they weren't jelling as a team."
But after the post-Saladino practice, things started coming together. Zack Powers and Alexander became even more vocal leaders. Team members replaced listless play by hard-nosed aggression. And the seniors realized that without a change in direction the season — and some of their careers — would soon be over.
"They started wanting the pressure that comes with a "lose and you're done' attitude," Wrenn said. "I think that helped the seniors step up and make this team a more cohesive unit."
Tonight, the Hawks will see exactly how far they've come against a talented Lake Wales (26-4) team ranked 10th in the nation by maxpreps.com. and 48th in ESPN's Fab 50. Armwood's stacked lineup features three players batting better than .400, including Josh Spano's team-high .462. Spano also paces the team with six homers, followed by three each from Jackson Fameree, Alexander and Powers.
"We definitely are a good hitting team," Wrenn said. "But we've won games on pitching and defense, too."
Like last Friday. Powers, who signed to play at Florida next year, tossed a three-hit shutout against Plant City in the region semis. Powers (6-1, 1.46 ERA, 67 strikeouts in 48 innings) will get the start tonight, but Spano (5-3, 1.91 ERA) and Alexander (three saves and 43 Ks in 25 innings) will both be available and ready if needed.
"The season didn't start out how we'd thought it'd be," Alexander said. "But physically we're just as good as last year and ready for (tonight)."
Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.