Ironwood Ridge pulled off the biggest upset of this high school football season Friday, and did so in convincing style.
After spotting second-seeded, unbeaten Glendale Sandra Day O’Connor a 7-0 lead on its second play from scrimmage, the Nighthawks scored five unanswered touchdowns and 35 straight points to beat the hosts 41-21 in the 5A-II state quarterfinals.
“Our players made big plays,” said Coach Matt Johnson, whose team is on a seven-game winning streak. Ridge, 9-3, now plays #3 Peoria Centennial on Friday, Dec. 3, at a site to be determined.
O’Connor “came out on fire,” Johnson said. “They put up a quick touchdown on a missed coverage, and got the ball back on an onside kick. We were really reeling.”
But the defense held.
Mitch Fischer, the junior running back and free safety who gives the Nighthawks a swagger on the football field, contributed a turning point. When he ran the ball 75 yards for a touchdown, Fischer “got everybody back to staying calm and being focused,” Johnson said. “Our kids displayed a lot of mental toughness.”
The gates opened. Senior quarterback Tyler D’Amore found Trevor Wesley on scoring passes of 46, 34 and 25 yards. Fischer ran for two points after two of those scores, and the Nighthawks led 28-7 at halftime.
They kept going, Fischer finishing a drive on an eight-yard catch from D’Amore. He would run 47 yards for Ironwood’s final points, and added an interception along the way. O’Connor scored 14 points in the later going.
Johnson said his football team believed it could win Friday.
“We’d done our film study, and thought we had some advantages,” Johnson said. “Even with their hot start, we knew if we could focus and execute, we knew we’d have our opportunities. It ended up a little lopsided.”
Defensively, once the Nighthawks “calmed down, we played real well,” Johnson said.
“Our strength was our run stops. Our run defense did a real nice job. I give a lot of credit to our D.” Leading the way were Tyler Grammar, blitzing off the edge, and Enrique Diaz and Will Gordon. “They did a nice job of putting pressure on the passing situations and still stopping the run,” Johnson said. “Linebacker Gabe Campa, as always, did an excellent job.”
Ironwood Ridge might be swell-headed entering a semifinal game … but it’s not.
“I think they’re pretty well grounded,” Johnson said. “Everybody knows Centennial’s a big powerhouse, and we’ve got a real big challenge in front of us. We’re definitely not cocky. We know we’re going to get to play one of the best teams in Arizona, and be tested as a team.”
Give the roll this Ridge team is on, Johnson might be chomping to play this week.
“Normally, I would,” he said. “We’re really beat up. We’re not one of those teams with 70 kids on the roster. We’re beat up, and this gives a good chance for us to heal. We’re just fine with taking a week off and getting some rest.”
The respite gives Ironwood Ridge a chance to focus anew on the prize.
“We win one more game, and stay together as a team for one more week,” Johnson said.
“The goal of football at some level is to have fun while learning discipline and work ethic,” Johnson said. “I think they are having fun. I think they do support each other while working their butts off and being responsible citizens.
“It’s fun. We’re excited. They’ll give it their best shot and see if we can go another week.”