Before Ironwood Ridge took on the Rincon Rangers in Thursday’s 5A-II Southern region volleyball championship, the Nighthawks warmed up behind imposing gym doors sealed with bright yellow police-style caution tape.
Once the match started, the #12 Rangers stepped into an off-limits area: the one between #2 Ironwood Ridge and the regional championship.
The homestanding Nighthawks dispatched Rincon in four games, 25-22, 25-22, 24-26 and 25-12. Ironwood Ridge plays Kingman in first-round state action Wednesday at 7 p.m. on the ‘Hawks home floor.
In Thursday’s opener, tough defensive play by Ranger middle blockers had the Nighthawks, 16-1, trailing Rincon 8-3.
Then Ironwood Ridge coach Bill Lang’s systematic training took hold, and the Nighthawks went on a tear, outscoring the Rangers 10-5 and evening the score behind strong service from senior setter Malyree Harper and big kills from sophomore middle blocker Morgan Eaton and outside hitter Michaela Christiaansen. The Nighthawks won, 25-22.
The second game was more of the same, as Rincon took an early lead and held it for nearly the entire game, in spite of inspired defensive play from senior Nighthawk libero Michelle Link and junior middle blocker Briana Hughes.
Ironwood Ridge made its move trailing 22-21, as Harper, also named region Player of the Year earlier in the evening, again took serving duties and led her team to another 25-22 victory, the final point coming on an ace serve that ricocheted off the hand of Rincon libero Karina Lopez and landing out of bounds.
In the third game, played to a tight 26-24 Rincon victory, the Rangers appeared to be unstoppable on defense, as middle blocker Amanda Mickle frustrated spike attempts from senior Nighthawk outside hitter Kirsten Linaker, and Rincon’s outside hitter Jessica Reilly was able to sneak kills past the Ironwood Ridge defenders.
If the Rangers had hopes of a comeback, however, the next game erased any such optimism.
Michaela Christaansen caught fire on both offense and defense, and the Nighthawks led the entire time, prevailing 25-12, and winning their second straight region crown.
“We noticed in the previous three sets we’d been losing some points in different matchups, so we made one slight adjustment, and it turned out to be a different score,” Lang said. “Rincon is a well-coached team, but they played two matches this week while we were practicing for them.”
If Ironwood Ridge beats #15 Kingman, the Nighthawks host a second state playoff match, and they’ve never lost a playoff match on their court.
Last year, Ironwood Ridge advanced to the tourney semifinals before losing to Glendale Ironwood. Lang is confident a game plan unchanged from that of the regular season will help the Nighthawks avoid elimination.
“We talked to the girls at length about this; the biggest mistake we can make is to try to do something different for the playoffs,” said Lang. “You can’t jump higher, you can’t dig the ball better, you can’t set faster -- I just want them to do what they’ve done.”
Captain and player of the year Harper hopes to do one thing the Nighthawks haven’t done this year: beat Glendale Centennial, the only team to beat Ironwood Ridge this season.
“We want to go all the way to finals, and we hope to see Centennial there,” said Harper with a slight smile. “(It would be) just a little bit of revenge.”