The most lukewarm Armwood football season of the past decade hasn't faded to black. To the contrary, it has gravitated to it.
When the Hawks arrived at school around 7:30 Tuesday morning, players found a plain black T-shirt in their lockers. Intended as a sign of solidarity, it has been the primary component of their school-day wardrobe all week.
"If they want me to wash it, fine. If they want to take it home and wash it, fine. If they don't want to wash it, fine," coach Sean Callahan said. "But we're wearing the same shirt, all day long."
Call it irony in 100 percent cotton. To those who have administered last rites to Armwood (7-3), which travels to undefeated Largo tonight for a first-round playoff game, the shirts may symbolize mourning.
But to Callahan, they symbolize morning. Or more specifically, the dawn of the 2012 Hawks' resurgence.
"Those first 10 games are over with now. This is a whole new season for us," Callahan said in the center of his practice field this week.
"Our preseason's over. I mean, (the postseason) is what we always live for. I still think the book hasn't been written on this team yet. I still think our best games are ahead of us."
If only the Hawks' collective kinks were as easy to iron out as those shirts. Graduation, penalties, injuries and offensive inconsistency have converged to hamstring Armwood, fresh off its worst regular season since 2001.
Devoid of an assertive downhill force in the vein of Kalvin Bailey, Kyle Wilcox or Matt Jones, Armwood is averaging 124.4 rushing yards - its lowest total in at least 10 years. The passing game, meantime, hasn't progressed to Callahan's liking. Even the kicking game has struggled.
Defensively, the Hawks haven't posted a shutout in nearly two months. Cornerback, arguably the team's greenest position, was further depleted when sleek sophomore Aaron Covington broke his arm against Hillsborough.
Then there are the penalties, a seasonlong scourge. In the Hawks' 3-0 loss to Hillsborough, the Terriers' only scoring drive was buoyed by three consecutive Armwood personal foul calls.
"It's not like we don't address it and coach it and deal with it in practice," Callahan said. "It's just something that's got to get better."
Yet for all that, the Hawks are only 15 points from an undefeated season. Before Monday's practice, Callahan stressed that to his players with an impassioned lecture, urging the seniors to take responsibility for 2012 and carve their own niche in Hawks lore, starting at Largo.
Then, as if providing yet another spark, he reaffirmed his decision to insert University of Florida-bound senior Alvin Bailey - clutch-play catalyst of last season's state title run - at quarterback the rest of the way.
Six-foot-5 quarterback Darryl Richardson remains at wideout alongside free safety Leon McQuay III, who becomes the program's first full-time two-way starter in roughly a dozen years.
"There's definitely a different aura offensively with (Bailey) at quarterback," offensive coordinator Evan Davis said. "I mean, there's a belief in the kids, there's something different."
Could it be a swagger? You bet your black shirt, Bailey suggests. When asked how he responds to those who have written Armwood's obituary, Bailey sharply responds, "Keep hatin'."
"Obviously I'm biased," Callahan added, "but we feel really good."
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.
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Armwood (7-3) at Largo (10-0)
Winner faces: Osceola-Hillsborough winner in Class 6A region semifinals
Breakdown: ATH Alvin Bailey, nursing a minor toe injury, starts at QB from here on out for the Hawks, who haven't lost a first-round playoff game since 1999. ... The Hawks feel good about their chances of neutralizing a Largo run game that averages 199 yards, but the scrambling and passing of Packers QB Juwan Brown (22 TDs, zero picks) could be the X factor here.
Joel Anderson's pick: Largo, 17-13
Joey Knight's pick: Armwood, 24-19