Joe Henderson Columns
Column: Armwood football team flying under radar
SEFFNER - There aren't a lot of weeds around the outstanding football complex at Armwood High School. Everything about the place screams "big time" as befits the Hawks' many accomplishments. But for the time being, they are content to be playing the role as an afterthought in one of the premier prep football matchups of the season. Indeed, they are lying in the weeds, so to speak, for tonight's game against Plant! Plant! Plant! Yes, the Hawks are 3-0 and have a roster that could carry them far in the Class 4A state playoffs next month. Yes, Plant! Plant! Plant! has looked vulnerable - albeit in nationally televised games against powerhouse opponents from Bradenton Manatee (a preseason beating) and Abilene, Texas. Plant! Plant! Plant! remains the headliner in just about any game it plays, though, and so it will be tonight on the newly resurfaced turf at Dad's Stadium.That's OK with Sean Callahan, the longtime Armwood coach. "I felt like in the past we were hated, but now it's Plant that's hated because they're so good," he said. "No one is paying attention to us. We don't have the No. 1 prospect in the nation, and we haven't got some recent state championships. "It isn't like we've dropped off the face of the Earth, but it's different now. Plant hasn't just passed us, they've blown by us." Weep not for Armwood, though. Not when the Hawks have a senior quarterback like Josh Grady. Like all Armwood teams, the Hawks think run first, but Grady can air it out when he needs to. The Hawks average 154 passing yards per game, which is something different. "He's the best quarterback we've had," Callahan said. "We've had athletes in the past who were quarterbacks, but he's a quarterback that's an athlete." Throw in a back like junior Matt Jones, with five rushing touchdowns in three games, and now Armwood has balance. And there's junior Leon McQuay, who plays just about wherever he wants on defense. He's the grandson of the University of Tampa football star by the same name. McQuay high jumps 6 feet, 6 inches. He runs the 100-meter dash in the low-11-second range. "Next year, he'll be the most heavily recruited player in the county," Callahan said. Yeah, the Hawks are good. Games like this are always special. Of the many great prep rivalries in this county, Armwood and Plant! Plant! Plant! might be the best thing going. They have five state championships between them since 2003 - three for the Panthers - but their images couldn't be more contrasting. Armwood is out in the sticks and proud of it. You can hear the trucks rumble by on Interstate 4 while the Hawks practice. Usually they'd rather run over you than around, and if you're a little intimidated when facing their defense, well, that's just fine, too. Plant! Plant! Plant! is South Tampa cool, with space-age football that turns out big-time quarterbacks. Current starter Phillip Ely has committed to Alabama. The two previous starters are Aaron Murray (Georgia) and the injured Robert Marve (Purdue). And there's that Panthers trademark cheer ... Plant! Plant! Plant! It started when a rival coach complained that all he ever read in the paper was Plant, Plant, Plant. It became a battle cry for the Panthers, mostly because they know everyone hates it. "The thing is, when we raised the bar here in the county, everyone saw that we played very physical at Armwood," Callahan said. "But going back to '06, we noticed that Plant was getting more physical, too. They ran fast like our kids, they hit like ours, and we saw what happened. They had to get rid of that little soft South Tampa image." Because both schools are in different classifications, it has no bearing on who goes to the playoffs. For sheer entertainment on a prep level though, it's hard to imagine things getting much better than this. "These are the games you enjoy," Callahan said. "It's why you want to play football at Armwood." So keep an eye on the weeds tonight around South Tampa. If you see something in there that looks like it's ready to emerge, it's just Armwood on its way to Plant! Plant! Plant! for one of the best games of this or any other year.