PALM BEACH GARDENS — When the Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer football team bus pulled out of Plant High two years ago and headed home following a stinging state semifinal loss, it drove right past Armwood High.
Dwyer coach Jack Daniels remembers seeing the field and thinking how close it was to Interstate 4. What he couldn't have known at the time is that almost exactly two years later, that field would be the most important stop on the Panthers' road to consecutive state titles.
If the Panthers are going to pull that feat off, they are going to have to beat the Hawks for the second consecutive year. And, this time, it probably won't be as easy as last year's 41-15 victory in South Florida.
Last season, the Panthers were up 21-15 with a quarter to go and quickly watching Armwood steal the momentum. Then Matt Elam struck.
Elam ran in from 15 yards following a Dwyer interception early in the fourth. He later returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown to seal the win. For the night, he rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns and had the interception return for another score.
The problem for Dwyer is that Elam now plays at the University of Florida and will play his next game in the Outback Bowl, not at Lyle Flagg Stadium.
"We've looked at last year's game several times," Daniels said. "And we called Matt to see if he could play for us this weekend. But he can't. (Armwood) is going to look at our tapes and think they're going to kill us this year."
Actually, the Panthers have filled in the gaping hole left by Elam quite well.
Shawn McClaine took over at running back and averages 9.2 yards per carry. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett has thrown for 2,359 yards, 31 touchdowns and one interception. And the defense has given up 71 points this season (26 in the season opener) and won the last 12 games by an average of 42.1 points.
"I'm expecting a lot of speed on defense, a lot of hitting … things of that nature," Brissett said. "But we've got talent and we've got chemistry."
But a game of this caliber requires more than chemistry, and Daniels has been working hard to change things up a little bit from last year.
"This is one of the top defenses in the country, probably," Daniels said. "There are things that you have to change. Things that you've had in the playbook in the past that you know aren't going to be successful against a team like this. We think we're getting a game plan together for (tonight) that gives us the best chance to win."
While the defensive schemes will be different and the offense will change to try to keep the Hawks off balance, one thing the Dwyer players are happy about is that the road to their second state title goes through Seffner.
"We want Armwood. If we win the state title, we want to know we earned it," said defensive end Curt Maggitt. "If Charlotte had beaten Armwood last week, this would just be another game."