SEFFNER — By the fifth week of the season, Armwood High's football team learned the true meaning of family.
Before their regular-season district game at Jefferson, Armwood players, one by one, were surprised to find in their lockers a phrase, more like an acronym, from head coach Sean Callahan as a reminder of what it takes to reach the state championship game.
Forget About Me, I Love You.
“I looked at that and just leaned on everybody,” Vanderbilt-bound senior safety Kyle Gibson said.
Playing as a family has led the undefeated Hawks to today's Class 6A state title game at 1 p.m. against nationally ranked Miami Central at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.
Playing as a team, not as individuals, was Callahan's toughest challenge as coach this season.
“Everybody wants to have stats and be the best football player, best running back, best receiver, but what we're buying into now is that we're playing for each other and we actually had to teach these kids how to celebrate together.”
Though this will be Armwood's sixth time playing for a state championship, this group is unlike any other Armwood team to have made it this far.
“We've been fortunate to have played in the state finals in the past but this by far is the youngest group of kids who have played over and above this season, so there's a lot of excitement here and we're still amazed that we're here at this position right now,” said Callahan, in his 24th season as the Hawks' head coach.
There were too many questions and concerns surrounding this year's team. To begin, the Hawks started the season minus three important players. Kaylaun Edwards, Shedaul Price and Markise Firlow all tore their ACLs during the summer. All three injuries did not involve contact.
Edwards, a junior, would have had time at cornerback and Price at receiver. Firlow, according to Callahan, would have been the fastest player on the team.
There was also the task of replacing a two-year starting quarterback and revamping the offensive line. Noah Johnson was fourth on the QB depth chart in 2012 and attempted just six passes, two of which were completed, as a sophomore. He played sparingly at receiver and defensive back. With no one else challenging for the starting position, he was unexpectedly awarded the job during 7-on-7 play in the summer.
During the course of the season, however, Johnson progressed into Armwood's playmaker and leads the offense with 1,980 passing yards and 18 touchdowns and is the leading rusher with 809 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Center Thomas Bartley is the one player, Callahan said, he couldn't do without this season.
“Our coaches prepared me very well (before the season) and gave me a lot of confidence,” Johnson said. “The improvement has come a little more every week. Now I feel very confident. I play a lot smarter.”
Gibson said there was a gap between the more experienced players and those stepping into new roles this season. Week by week, however, the Hawks, like Johnson, improved.
“The teams that we played, the level (of play) was brought up,” Gibson said. “Even with Jefferson, and the second time we played them, as the level of opponents increase, we've all increased (our play) over time.”
To capture the program's third state championship today, the underdog Hawks will have to go through the No. 3 team in the nation, a team Armwood defeated in the 6A title game in 2011. That title game has since been vacated due to both programs playing ineligible athletes.
“We like being the underdog,” Johnson said. “You fight harder when you're the underdog. I guarantee we'll give them a fight.”