SEFFNER — After rolling through the regular season, one of the top prep football programs in the state of Florida has found the going a bit tougher in the state playoffs. Armwood High School, ranked as high as number-two in the country in some national polls, cruised through their first ten games of the year – including a nationally-televised defeat of fellow powerhouse Bishop Gorman out in Las Vegas – on their way to yet another state playoff berth. But after struggling to a 35-31 win against Bradenton Lakewood Ranch in round one, the Hawks were tested again at home against visiting Gainesville in a FHSAA Class 6A regional final.
You might even say the Hawks were looking to win with a “Denver Broncos” philosophy by the end of a Friday night showdown against the Purple Hurricanes. Through suffocating defense and special teams, the favored Hawks were in striking distance, but trailed 14-10 late in the fourth quarter against GHS at Lyle Flagg Field. Then, the big play they were counting on finally came through.
Wake Forest-bound defensive end Sheldon Lewison stripped the ball near the Armwood sideline after a crushing blow of Gainesville junior quarterback Mark Cato. The Hawks recovered inside the GHS 20-yard line, and all the momentum in the world with just under four minutes to play.
Running back Wade Edwards slipped behind the GHS defense on a wheel route, and with 3:46 to play Alvin Bailey found the senior for a 13-yard touchdown pass, the winning score in a 17-14 victory for Armwood.
“It was good football,” Armwood coach Sean Callahan said afterwards. “If anything, it builds confidence in these guys.”
Armwood certainly needed that confidence, after falling behind 14-3 at the half as the Hawks’ offense struggled to generate any sort of rhythm. A blocked punt by South Florida commitment Chris Bivins gave the Purple Hurricanes an early 7-0 lead after safety Juan Jenkins picked the ball up and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown. Gainesville extended the lead to 14-3 just before the half on a three-yard run by Cato. The only points of the first half by Armwood came on a 21-yard field goal by Nick Feely with 2:45 to play in the first quarter.
“I told the whole team to believe,” Florida running back commitment Matt Jones said of the halftime speech he gave to his teammates. “If we believe in ourselves, we can do anything, and that’s what we did tonight.”
While Jones was held in check by a fine defensive effort by Gainesville – managing just 13 rushing yards on 10 carries – he did manage to contribute in the passing game. Using his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame to give converted quarterback Bailey (who started the season at receiver) a bigger target, Jones hauled in a 43-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to cut the lead to four points and get Armwood back in the game.
“They were packing the box, so I had to go out there and catch some balls,” Jones said.
Outside of a missed 47-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter, the contest devolved into a field-position battle until the forced fumble by Lewinson, setting up the late-game heroics between Bailey and Ewards.
“I had to come through for the team,” Bailey said. “We were running that [wheel] route the whole game, but we couldn’t hit it. When [Wade] got open, I floated it up there and he caught it.”
Bailey, who has emerged as one of the top junior prospects in the state with his performance this season, finished with 192 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns for the Hawks.
Armwood will now look to finish their season in Orlando for the second consecutive year. All that stands between the Hawks and another state final appearance is a date with St. Johns Bartram Trail, a 34-24 winner over Pace on Friday night. The two squads will do battle on Dec. 9 in Seffner for the right to advance to the FHSAA Class 6A state championship game.
Justin Wells hosts a weekly recruiting video chat with Andrew Spivey on Tuesday nights from 8:30-9:30 p.m. EST. You can view the show live on the Gator Country TV page. You can also e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org—or follow him on twitter @j_wellsGC.