It was cold Monday, and Matt Johnson had his Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks running "gassers," back and forth across a football field, to warm up.
Long ago, it seems, the 'Hawks were practicing in temperatures near triple digits. Long ago, it seems, the 9-3 Nighthawks last lost a football game.
They’ve won seven in a row headed into Friday night’s 5A-II semifinal game with 11-1 Peoria Centennial, kicking off at 7 p.m. at Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor. In three of those wins, Ironwood Ridge scored more than 60 points. They’ve all come since a 2-3 start. Ask a Nighthawk if they believed they’d be one win away from the state title game back then, and they all say “yes.”
“We knew we’d played three tough teams,” said senior quarterback Tyler D’Amore, who sparks the potent passing attack with pinpoint throws. “They’re helping us out in the playoffs.”
Those losses were to three Tucson powerhouses, Oro Valley rival Canyon Del Oro 26-13, CDO’s fellow state semifinalist Cienega 31-28, and always-strong Salpointe Catholic 24-21.
“They were close losses,” said 6-2, 220-pound senior defensive end Will Gordon. “It was not like we were getting destroyed.”
“We got all the tough teams out of the way,” said 6-2, 275-pound senior lineman Jacob Viesselman. “If we kept trying, I thought we could make it. We always break the huddle with ‘state.’”
“We’re always going to have confidence,” said D’Amore, who completed 15 of 21 passes for 272 yards and four touchdowns in the 41-21 quarterfinals win Nov. 19 over Sandra Day O’Connor. “We have some of the best athletes in the state. We never feel we’re the underdog.”
“We always thought we’d get there,” said senior Gabe Campa, who ran for 61 yards on six carries at O’Connor, and is a key to the Ridge defense from his linebacking spot. “Every week we try to get better. We’re not looking past this team. We’ve been blessed with a great seed and a great schedule. We’ve got to go out and give 110 percent.”
“We have confidence in our offense,” Gordon said. “When they get rolling, they can score some touchdowns.”
Ironwood Ridge did not practice last Thursday and Friday. Time away “has helped us tremendously,” Campa said, in terms of rest, healing and preparation. He, of course, is ready to go at any time, on every play. “I always want to be out on the field. This is my senior season.” He’s out there for almost every snap, save punt return.
On Friday, “we have to be crisp on offense, crisp on defense,” D’Amore said. “And no turnovers.”
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” said Viesselman. “We have to be focused, and we’re not able to make any mistakes.”
Ironwood Ridge and Centennial share one common opponent from the regular season. The Nighthawks beat Laveen Chavez 43-18, and Centennial shut out Chavez 42-0.