John Kelly remembers the days before Armwood was a powerhouse. • The Hawks spent 12 years as a growing program east of Tampa before they finally made their first playoff appearance in 1996, with Kelly on the roster. Seven years later, Kelly was on the coaching staff when Armwood broke through with its first state title.
"I still look back fondly on that and feel like I was one of the ones that helped establish that program," Kelly said.
A few years later and 4 miles east, Kelly is trying to do the same as the head coach at Strawberry Crest.
His Chargers (5-2, 2-0) sit atop Class 7A, District 8 heading into tonight's pivotal matchup with East Bay (5-2, 1-0). A victory over the Indians would secure the best record in Strawberry Crest's five-year history and help the Chargers take another step toward their first playoff appearance — and maybe even the district championship.
"It'd mean the world to me," senior linebacker/defensive end Alex Carswell said. "I feel like we're gonna be that team that breaks through."
Strawberry Crest's climb hasn't been easy.
Kelly arrived in 2012 as the program's third coach in four seasons. The Chargers finished 1-9 on the field the previous year, including a 69-6 season-opening loss to Plant City and an 80-0 shellacking by Armwood.
"It was mentally draining, especially with everybody in the area talking about how you're not good and how you're never gonna be good and how you're gonna lose on Friday nights," junior Austin Carswell said. "We just had to play through it anyway."
The Chargers improved to 4-6 last fall and beat Plant City, but have had more issues to play through this year. They opened the season 1-2 and lost their 2,100-yard passer when starting quarterback Tristan Hyde sustained a season-ending knee injury against Tallahassee Leon.
With fewer than 40 varsity players on its roster, Strawberry Crest moved one of its top athletes — Austin Carswell — from defensive back to starting quarterback and filled his spot in the secondary with freshmen.
The 6-foot-1 Carswell has performed well in his new role. In four games as the starter, he has completed 54 percent of his passes for 493 yards while passing for seven touchdowns and rushing for another. More importantly, his Chargers have their first four-game win streak in school history since the soft-spoken Carswell became the team's leader in the huddle.
"It's a lot more responsibility," said his older brother, Alex. "He feels more comfortable now than when he first started."
Defense and intensity have been the other keys to Strawberry Crest's newfound success.
The Chargers are allowing only 14 points per game behind senior Matt Chaney, one of the county's leaders in tackles (87), and Division I recruit Alex Carswell, who has switched his focus from receiver (five touchdowns last year) to pass rusher (six tackles for a loss).
Players quickly credit their coaches for changing their mentalities. Instead of worrying about the big picture or winning immediately, they're focused on the next play.
Kelly said he has some big plays for his young program — eventually. A field house. District titles. A state championship trophy.
But he also preaches the value of a slow ascent, like what he experienced at Armwood. And his players are finally seeing his vision without being blinded by the thoughts of their first playoff game.
"I know we're 2-0 in the district, but right now we haven't really done anything," Austin Carswell said. "This is just the beginning."
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.