The stands were filled beyond capacity, players were pumped and only one team would have bragging rights of being Tucson’s best team heading into to the playoffs in Friday night’s season finale between top-ranked Ironwood Ridge, and second-place Salpointe.
By the end of the game, it was Salpointe celebrating the 27-14 victory, and for Ironwood Ridge it wasn’t this game that mattered for the 9-1 teams, it was the game coming up this Friday that deserved more attention.
Not taking anything away from a great game played by Salpointe, Ironwood Coach Matt Johnson quickly sent the message that this game was over, and the real season is about to be played.
“After win six in the regular season, the rest of these games are just gravy,” he said. “You have to give Salpointe credit, they were quick on the ball, they controlled the line of scrimmage. We made some mistakes tonight, but they are a great team.”
Senior quarterback and team leader Tyler Williams moved on before the final second ticked, telling the defense it’s time to look at the playoffs and in the end, “This game isn’t the one that matters.”
However, Ironwood Ridge left plenty on the field Friday night with several turnovers, failures to score in the red zone, and a tired defense that couldn’t stop the running game of Salpointe’s high-powered offense led by tailback Johnny Pena.
Pena rushed for 187 yards against the Nighthawks.
Early in the first quarter, it was Ironwood Ridge that came out firing on all cylinders. After forcing the Salpointe offense to a three and out on the first possession, Scott Simmons came in to block the Lancers’ punt.
Getting the ball at the Salpointe 2-yard-line, the Nighthawks quickly capitalized with Anthony Braunreiter running up the middle for the score. With the extra point, the Nighthawks led 7-0 with 8:10 left in the first quarter.
Salpointe’s offense woke up late in the first quarter, with quarterback Andrew Cota leading the Lancers downfield, capping off a 12-play drive with Pena pounding it in for the score. With 15 seconds in the opening quarter, a missed extra point had the Lancers trailing 7-6.
With Ironwood Ridge struggling on offense, Salpointe’s next drive would give the Lancers the lead with Pena scoring again from four yards out, making the score 13-7 with 10:13 remaining the first half.
Before halftime, the Lancers would score again, taking a commanding 20-7 lead into the locker room at halftime.
In the second half, the Nighthawks’ defense held the Lancers to one score, but the high-scoring Ironwood Ridge offense continued to struggle to get points on the board.
The Nighthawks would score again at the end of the third quarter when Tyler Williams ran to the left side for the touchdown and fourth down.
“It is what it is,” Williams said. “The bottom line is this game isn’t the state championship. It is important for us to get refocused. Yeah, we shot ourselves in the foot a little bit, but (Salpointe) played a good game. They were fast on the ball on offense and defense. They played a good game, and this will help us get a little more focused for the playoffs.”
Salpointe is now ranked first in Division II, while the Nighthawks dropped to third behind Marcos de Niza.
With the second-place ranking, the Nighthawks will host 14th seed Prescott. Kick off is 7 p.m.