After capturing the Division II State Championship last year, the Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks will look to rebuild this year, returning only one starter out of 22 spots from the 2012 season.
Ironwood Ridge fought its way to the title last year by entering the playoffs with a 9-1 regular season record (13-1 overall), and then taking out Prescott, Apollo, and Marcos De Niza before defeating Centennial 27-3 in the championship game.
Their sole loss during the season came to Salpointe Catholic High School, a team that could easily make a run this year to a title game under the talent of Cameron Denson, Andrew Cota, and a long list of others.
The Nighthawks will have to compete this season without star quarterback and field leader Tyler Williams, who graduated in May.
Head coach Matt Johnson said Williams’ replacement has not yet been selected.
Also graduating was the powerhouse running back Anthony Braunreiter, wide receivers John Klass and Jake Matthews, and hard-hitting linebacker Scott Simmons.
Senior Jake Vartanian is the frontrunner to take Braunreiter’s starting running back position, but there is no doubt some gaps left in the lineup.
“Losing kids is always going to be hard, but you try to establish talk about the established culture,” said Johnson. “You can’t just close the program down. Some years you have more veterans, and some years you have less.”
The culture Johnson refers to has a lot to do with leadership, and with a willingness from young players to learn from those talents who have helped put the Ironwood Ridge program on the map – such as Williams and Braunreiter did last year, and the Fischer brothers in the years before that.
“That’s huge at Ironwood Ridge,” said Johnson. “Even before I was here, there has been a legacy of success, a culture of success. I think each year passes on something to the next group.”
In the coming season, that will certainly help the Nighthawks, who, despite only having one returning starter, will have 19 seniors in their lineup, each of which has had the opportunity to learn from a packed field of talent in the last few years.
Despite the changes, Johnson says his coaching style will more or less stay the same.
“Your most successful programs are focused on the process, and on a series of steps,” he said. “I think we’ll stick with generally the same style, though we might throw in a little more here or there where needed.”
Johnson has led the Nighthawks to three playoffs in his four years at the helm.
He is confident that regardless of the program’s record this year, his Nighthawks will leave everything on the field.
“I think our alumni will be proud of the way these kids will play this season,” he said.
The Nighthawks will face Liberty High School in their season opener on Aug. 23.