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Armwood shows its resilience

Armwood coach Sean Callahan is hoisted as the Hawks win the 2011 state football title, which is later stripped by the FHSAA.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times (2011)

Armwood coach Sean Callahan is hoisted as the Hawks win the 2011 state football title, which is later stripped by the FHSAA.

Leon McQuay III and Jarvis McCall did return interceptions for scores in the first quarter, and Eric Striker most definitely had two sacks, and Matt Jones absolutely caught a perfectly thrown 80-yard touchdown pass from Alvin Bailey.

And the score was, without a doubt: Armwood High 40, Miami Central 31.

You won't find that 2011 state football final anywhere on the Florida High School Athletic Association's website.

It has been expunged, doesn't count, never happened.

Except, that it did.

But you know what feels like never happened?

The punishment.

Oh sure, between the two teams —Central was penalized for playing an ineligible quarterback — there were 39 forfeited games over two seasons. Armwood had to return its runnerup trophy from 2010 and its championship trophy from 2011, and Central gave back its runnerup trophy from 2011.

But good luck finding any bruises on either program.

Or, for that matter, anyone on either squad who thinks the Game that Never Happened … never happened.

On Saturday, the teams meet again in the Citrus Bowl for the Class 6A state championship, and both see it as a rematch of a game that was.

"There is (satisfaction to be back)," Armwood coach Sean Callahan said. "There's still a lot of animosity and anger, sure. But we're back here and with only one kid committed to a Division I school. Our schedule wasn't that tough, but the playoffs have been very tough. Next year, we'll be even better. We're just doing the same thing I've always done. I guess people can hate Armwood because we win, but we're back. Though really, it's not like we ever left."

Only Kyle Gibson and Greg Newton remain from that 2011 team, if you're counting guys who actually played in the game.

The rest still flout championship rings and probably have their gold medals hanging somewhere in their bedrooms.

The FHSAA couldn't take those away.

In June 2012, the FHSAA stripped Armwood of its title and all of 15 wins from 2011, as well as 11 from the previous season for playing ineligible players. In August 2012, the FHSAA did the same to Central.

Callahan had to paint over the 2011 on the Armwood billboard that lists the other years the Hawks were champions (2003 and 2004). But he never believed in what he was doing.

It led to his darkest time as a head coach. It threatened to break the Hawks, but instead it seemed to strengthen them. The experience added another layer to an already defiant program.

Hawks against the World.

In what he says was his toughest year ever coaching — and he's been doing it 24 years — Callahan guided Armwood to a 9-4 record and a berth in region semifinals last year.

Those eager to write the program off had to quickly put away their paper and pens.

"We heard all kinds of stuff. That I was going to quit at some point, that Armwood football would dissolve to nothing," Callahan said.

Armwood couldn't win with the kids in the hall, folks said, and the new, stringent countywide transfer rules — brought on by the Armwood investigation — would clip the Hawks' wings for good.

"We heard all that," said Callahan, "then we went out last year and went 9-4 and it all kind of quieted down."

Now the last sounds of the 2013 football season will be made by the Hawks, Tampa Bay's last team standing. They will be trying, officially, for their third state championship.

"Do I count that (2011) game? Hell, yeah, I count that game," Callahan said.

Whether you believe the FHSAA investigation and punishment were fair, went too far or didn't go far enough, it is easy to marvel at the 2013 Hawks.

They lost three players to ACL injuries in the offseason, and lost four coaches, including longtime defensive coordinator Matt Thompson (now at Jesuit).

But players stepped up, such as untested quarterback Noah Johnson and lightly regarded linemen such as Hyriam Frederick and Thomas Bartley. New defensive coordinator Darrell Palmer constructed a defense that allowed only 42 points in the regular season, tying a school record.

And Callahan ably massaged a young, inexperienced team (at times), and unflinchingly rode them when the moment called for it.

Each week during the playoffs, he would chide his youngsters: "Do you really want to play Miami Central? We could lose now and still have had a respectable season."

That annoyed the Hawks, maybe even spurred them on.

Armwood (14-0) is a big underdog Saturday. Maybe bigger than it has ever been, against the No. 3 team in the country (12-1), according to USA Today.

Maybe it's a year early.

"As a staff, my guys don't get the credit they deserve," Callahan said. "But we're here. We're always here."

It's like they never left.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com.

State football final

Class 6A: Armwood vs. Miami Central

When/where: 1 p.m. Saturday; Citrus Bowl, Orlando

TV: BHSN

Admission: $12; parking $10

Armwood shows its resilience 12/11/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 10:26pm]
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