ORLANDO — Armwood High School's shot at redemption was still in progress when the very reason for it was displayed on the big screen for all in the Citrus Bowl to see.
The Hawks trailed Miami Central by four points midway through the third quarter of Saturday's Class 6A state championship game when highlights of last year's title matchup with the Rockets — one that Armwood lost in a blowout, 52-7 — began playing during a timeout. The Hawks on the sideline looked up and watched, stone-faced.
"That ain't happening again," senior kicker Sterling Hofrichter shouted to any Hawk who would listen.
Soon after, it appeared that prophecy would be fulfilled. On the very next play Armwood took the first lead it has had against in the Rockets in two years, when quarterback Noah Johnson connected with Darrian McNeal for an 18-yard touchdown, McNeal's second of season.
The momentum wouldn't last, though, and Miami Central finally took advantage of Armwood's four turnovers to win 24-10, the Rockets' third straight state championship.
"It doesn't matter about the weight room, it doesn't matter about running harder. You just can't lay the ball on the ground," Armwood coach Sean Callahan said. "To me, the game of football is blocking, tackling and protecting the football."
Callahan knew going into the matchup that, on paper, Miami Central (14-1) was the better team.
In the first half, the Rockets showed it on the field.
Cedric Miller exploded for a 26-yard run on the Rockets' second drive of the game, which was soon capped by a 2-yard touchdown run from Anthony Jones, cousin of former Miami Central and current Florida State running back Dalvin Cook.
A year after Cook dismantled Armwood in the state final, Jones did the same, to a lesser degree. He led the Rockets with 201 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Despite outgaining Armwood in yards, 131-62, in the first half, Miami Central went into the break with just a 7-0 lead. When the third quarter began, Armwood (14-1) made its statement, scoring 10 unanswered points on a Hofrichter 40-yard field goal and McNeal's touchdown.
On defense, too, the Hawks seemed to minimize the damage. They stopped Jones as he tried to pick up a first down on a fake punt, and Armwood took over in Rockets territory. Hawks linebacker Jordan Griffin finished with a team-high 19 tackles, 10 more than the next best defender.
"We just knew we had to come out and fight," Johnson said of the second-half turnaround. "That's what we did."
But in contrast to what the Hawks have experienced outside of state championship games the past two seasons, their effort just wasn't enough.
Johnson, who finished 8-of-24 for 67 yards, was sacked and stripped on that next drive, and Miami Central turned the opportunity into three points on a 36-yard tying field goal.
The teams were locked in a stalemate for much of the fourth quarter. Miami Central fumbled deep in Armwood territory and defensive back Kaylaun Edwards recovered. The Hawks couldn't do anything with the opportunity and were forced to punt.
On the next drive, the Rockets strung together first downs, and Jones capped an 82-yard drive with a 19-yard touchdown run.
Miami Central came into the game with 78 sacks, averaging more than five per game. Defensive end Byron Cowart said he addressed the challenge with the offensive line in the days leading up to the game.
"The offense knew they had like 30 sacks in the playoffs," Cowart said. "I talked to our O-line, I tried to work with all of them and tell them, 'They have to come to you. Stay patient.' "
That would be easier said than done. Down seven, the Hawks got the ball with less than five minutes to go. Johnson was sacked on back-to-back plays, then picked off. In all, Johnson was sacked four times.
Armwood stopped Miami Central and got the ball back on its own 17-yard line with a minute and a half to work with. On fourth and 9 from the 18, Johnson was picked off again. Jones twisted the knife on the very next play, rushing 20 yards for an insurance score.
Miami Central, the team that for so long has been a thorn in Armwood's side, kicked off once more. The Rockets tried to contain their celebration while watching the final — meaningless — 34 seconds.
For the second straight year, the Hawks had to accept that Miami Central was better. Still, when Callahan looked around at his players, many in tears, he didn't see losers.
"(I see) just a lot of pride and guts. We battled. We came in here with a good attitude — that's a highly skilled team — and we made a lot of plays," he said. "We just didn't make enough."