The Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks earned a spot in the Division II State Championships by doing what they do best, running the ball in the semifinal victory over Marcos de Niza.
The Nighthawks defeated Marcos de Niza 35-21 on Nov. 16, with tailback Anthony Braunreiter leading the way. The senior star rushed for 279 yards on 22 carries, with 140 of those coming in the first half.
Braunreiter, who thanked his offensive line after Friday’s victory, has rushed for 1,685 yards for the season.
“I was really pleased, I thought our kids played a great game,” said Ironwood Ridge Head Coach Matt Johnson. “Our whole goal this year has been to compete in the playoffs, and that’s what we’ve being doing so far.”
The Nighthawks have struggled in the semifinal rounds in past years, losing a heartbreaker last season to Cienega. At the beginning of this season, the Nighthawks talked of getting past that semifinal hump and winning a state championship.
When asked about winning the semifinals, Johnson said, “We’re excited about it. With these kids, that has been our goal, and to finally get over it feels great. And, while we’re excited, we still have a lot of work to do, and we still have to be good students and citizens in the meantime.”
Now, the Nighthawks are in position to achieve the goal of winning a state championship on Saturday, Nov. 24 as they get set to take on Peoria Centennial at Sun Devil Stadium.
Centennial earned a ticket to state, beating top seed Salpointe, which Johnson said wasn’t a big surprise, given the talent that remained with the final four times.
“Everyone at this point is going to be a good team,” he said. “A couple breaks can send a game either way for either team.”
When it comes to the game plan for Centennial, Johnson said he wouldn’t be making many changes.
“If you change too much, you start confusing your own kids,” he said. “We have had success doing what we’ve been doing, and I don’t think we will do much differently this game.”
The Nighthawks (12-1) defeated Centennial (12-1) 28-24 in week 6.
Centennial Coach Richard Taylor said he is looking forward to the rematch.
“Salpointe was an outstanding team,” he said. “If we hadn’t made improvements since the sixth game, I doubt we’d be playing this week.”
Taylor said Ironwood Ridge may not have a lot of big players, but they are all good athletes who play to their strengths.
“They all run and they all hit,” he said. “We did have some problems with what they did. It was no accident. They earned those turnovers, and earned the win.”
In the first meeting, Centennial lost four fumbles, and had two interceptions.
Saturday’s game will make the first time in school history the Nighthawks will play in the state championships.
Third seed Ironwood Ridge, and fourth seed Centennial will kick off at 7:07 p.m. Saturday.