SEFFNER — Even though the game was nearly three months ago, there was no sugarcoating Armwood's 36-28 early-season loss to American Heritage.
"We just laid a big old egg against them," Armwood defensive coordinator Matt Thompson said. "It was a classic case of seniors against young guys."
There were some big holes to fill from last year's dominant Hawks defense and that game clued Thompson into exactly how much work lay ahead.
"They put it on us," he said. "But we came out and shut out Tampa Bay Tech the next week and things got going from there."
From the loss to American Heritage to last week's 9-7 region semifinal win against Hillsborough, Armwood's young defense never gave up more than 21 points, pitched a pair of shutouts and held the opposition to 8 points or less six times in those nine games.
"They really have played above and beyond all expectations," Thompson said.
Thompson's biggest rebuilding job was replacing six starters from last year's unit. And as big of a physical challenge as that was, getting the new players up to speed mentally was equally as daunting.
"A lot of people think playing defense is easy," he said. "Sure we could line up in a 4-4 man (coverage) and let them go, but we have a lot of switches before the ball is even snapped."
And with those new players came growing pains. Sophomores Jordan Griffin, Aaron Covington, Nehemiah Miguel, Byron Cowart and Kaylaun Edwards have all seen significant playing time this season.
"It's the typical thing with young guys," Thompson said. "They make great plays out there and are flying around and the next thing you know, they do something that makes you want to pull your hair out."
But down the stretch things have fallen into place. The Hawks gave up 6 points against Largo in the first round of the playoffs and 7 last week to Hillsborough.
"These last two games, have certainly been (the defense's) best two games," said Armwood head coach Sean Callahan.
This week of practice has been spent getting ready for a rematch against a more diverse Gainesville offense, the top-ranked team in 6A. The 9-3 Hawks travel to the 12-0 Hurricanes tonight, the winner getting a spot in the state semifinal.
"Hillsborough had four shifts," Thompson said. "Gainesville has nine."
The strength of the Hawks' defense lies in the back with safeties Leon McQuay III and Kyle Gibson. Thompson called McQuay, committed to the University of Southern California, "a ball hawk who can make up for others' mistakes with his athleticism." And it was Gibson who jarred the ball loose from Gainesville quarterback Mark Cato late in last year's region final meeting that led to the Hawks' winning score.
"Some people are just born to hit," Thompson said. "Kyle is one of them."
If the trappings of youth aren't enough, Armwood enters tonight's rematch hobbled defensively as well. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Griffin is playing with a broken hand and Zeric Coleman is dealing with an ankle injury. The team may have to play without senior linebacker Marcus Jacobs, who has an ankle sprain. If Jacobs can't go, freshman Eric Frazier will get the start.
"We're hopeful that (Jacobs) can play," Callahan said. "But we're preparing like he won't."
Either way, Callahan is confident in his young Hawks — mostly due to his staff's preparation.
"As a coaching staff, I think this is our best year," he said. "We were under the microscope after the (player eligibility) investigation and came in here with a bunch of kids who weren't big enough, strong enough and felt entitled. We had our hands full and embraced it. And this is the time we live for."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]