4A football rivals' respect for one another runs deep

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007

Armwood coach Sean Callahan knows this might upset locals, but he insisted Thursday that Plant isn't the Hawks' top rival.

Or Hillsborough.

Or Jefferson.

"Everyone around here says they're our rival," Callahan said. "But we don't think of them that way."

Who, then, gets the nod?

"It's (Miami) Booker T. Washington," Callahan said matter of factly.

How can Callahan feel that way about a school 200 miles away?

"They're on the schedule," Callahan said with a straight face.

Not really. It only seems that way.

In 2003, '04 and '05, the teams met in the Class 4A state semifinals. Armwood won each time. They play for the fourth time tonight at Miami's Traz Powell Stadium. And once again, a state final berth is on the line.

"It's really turned out to be a great rivalry," Booker T. coach Tim "Ice" Harris said.

Although the programs have become bitter rivals, they share something in common: Each greatly respects the other. Callahan and Harris talk regularly. And the programs have often attended the same team camp during the summer, allowing the players to become acquainted on a more personal level.

"It's hard, it's intense," Armwood offensive coordinator Chris Taylor said. "But it's respectful. They are clean, they play hard and they're disciplined. They're not dirty, but they are physical."

In two of its three defeats to Armwood, Booker T. lost a lead in the final minutes. Most of its players were distraught after the 2004 and '05 setbacks, and several were brought to tears. One of them was Tornadoes quarterback Alwan Lee. But despite his anguish after the '05 game, a 37-34 Armwood win in Miami, Lee told reporters he would support the Hawks the next week at the 4A final.

Now, that's respect.

"They respect us," Armwood running back Eric Smith said. "And we respect them. When we play Booker T., it's always a good game."

Booker T. had more heartache last year. It lost to Plant in the semifinals. A week later, the Panthers claimed the 4A state title.

"It's still a game," Harris said. "Part of life is learning how to deal with adversity."

Can Washington (12-0) finally get past Armwood (13-0)? Or will the Hawks have the Tornadoes' number one more time?

Regardless of the outcome, one thing is certain.

"After the game, we'll all come together for a prayer," Harris said. "That's a positive sign. That's what it's all about."