The Ironwood Ridge football team is going to breathe rarified air Friday, as one of four teams left alive in the 5A-II playoffs.
The Nighthawks (10-2), who beat Sunnyside 24-17 two weeks ago, take on unbeaten and two-time defending state champion Peoria Centennial (12-0) in the semifinals at Chandler High School at 7 p.m.
For Ironwood Ridge, the semifinals are the road less traveled. This is the Nighthawks’ farthest reach into the football playoffs.
It has been a year of firsts for the Nighthawks, as head coach Gary Minor’s squad recorded its first-ever 10-win season and first undefeated season at home.
Centennial, however, might be getting used to the view from the top. The Coyotes, 2006 and 2007 state champs, have dominated the 5A-II division since its inception in 2005. They played in the 2005 title game, losing to Phoenix North Canyon.
So what happens when a traditional powerhouse comes face-to-face with an up-and-coming contender? A whole lot of excitement, according to Minor.
The game will also be a homecoming of sorts for the Nighthawks’ coach.
“For me personally, the game site is exciting because it’s at Chandler High School, my alma mater,” Minor added.
During the season both teams put up plenty of offensive fireworks, and the defenses have been suffocating. In games against Phoenix North and Rincon, the teams’ two common opponents this season, the outcomes were similar, with the Nighthawks winning by a combined total of 100-9, and the Coyotes doing the same, 137-7.
Over the entire season, however, Centennial appears to have slight advantages on both sides of the ball, outscoring opponents 510-67, while Ironwood Ridge posted a total score of 460-132.
Hoping to stifle a Coyotes offense averaging nearly 43 points per game will be the imposing senior linebacking duo of future University of Arizona Wildcat Jake Fischer and 5A-II Southern Region-leading tackler, Ray Cottman.
Cottman and Fischer, along with senior linemen Tyrone Williams and Chad Dietrich (region leader with 10.5 sacks) and junior Alex Banales will try to stuff a prolific Coyote run attack, headed by senior running back John Hughes. Hughes has scored 168 points this season, tops in the 5A-II Desert West, while amassing 1,225 yards rushing.
“They’re a running team and we feel that we’re good at stopping the run,” said Minor.
Centennial’s junior quarterback Dain McFarland has also been tough on opposing defenses, passing for 1,277 yards, and will seek to push a Nighthawk secondary that has, at times, been exposed by opposing passers.
Senior defensive back Nick Carlson, leading the region with five interceptions, and senior safety Brandon Flores will bear the brunt of the attack.
The good news for the Nighthawks: their offense, led by a bruising run game, has been equally difficult for opponents to defend. Power-running rusher Fischer is coming off a game in which he ran for more than 200 yards; he has nearly 700 on the season.
Junior Adrian Brahler provides a shifty-quick complement to Fischer’s physical backfield presence, and leads the team with 771 yards on the ground.
Despite the Nighthawks so-far successful one-two punch, Minor is aware of the Coyotes’ run-stopping resume.
“They’ve only give up two TDs once this year and that was to (perennial 5A-I power) Hamilton, who they beat anyway,” said Minor.
Although the Nighthawks’ ground attack has garnered most of the attention, Ironwood Ridge’s sophomore quarterback Tyler D’Amore has quietly thrown for 1,335 yards. Senior wide receiver Scott Campbell caught the majority of D’Amore’s passes, tallying a region-leading 889 yards.
The gaudy numbers are good indicators of successful seasons for both teams, but according to Minor, it will be the intangibles that will affect the game’s final outcome.
“We’ll have to play almost entirely mistake-free to win this one,” said Minor. “But I think we can.”