February 1, 2006 - It's Monday night in the Northwest and there's one thing that can always get the spirits up and the blood boiling, and no, it's not Monday Night Football.

Tonight is the late season match-up between the boys basketball teams of Canyon Del Oro and Ironwood Ridge high schools. In other words: rivalry game.

Instantly I'm taken back to high school days in New Jersey when such rivalry games provided the priceless opportunity to witness the sons of two former pro athletes - Chris Simms and Bob McAdoo III - on different occasions, give a middle-finger salute to our home crowd.

Back then, however, Indian Hills High School was better at irritating opponents than we were at beating them.

Rivalries have been known to bring out the best and the worst in players, fans and sports in general. Yet, without rivals, athletics, as we know it, arguably, would not exist.

The concept of sport rivalries is not foreign to the Grand Canyon State - after all, it is home to one of the oldest collegiate football trophies in NCAA history, the Territorial Cup, awarded to the winner of the ASU-UA football game each November.

And although CDO-Ironwood Ridge is not the Red Sox-Yankees or even UA-ASU, this fledgling rivalry has the potential to be among the best, and most heated, high school turf battles in all of Southern Arizona.

When CDO dropped down to the Class 4A this season - a direct result of Ironwood Ridge's arrival in Oro Valley five years ago - it immediately created the rift the Northwest needed.

It's a rivalry bred out of proximity and necessity with a hint of spite. Other area match-ups, while intriguing, often lack the pizzazz of Dorados vs. Nighthawks.

Marana and Mountain View high schools don't share the same class division and are separated by nearly 16 miles and an interstate. Less than six miles separate CDO from Ironwood Ridge.

Perhaps a natural rivalry will be born when a new high school in Marana is built and begins to pluck kids away from Marana High - much the same way CDO students and athletes defected to Ironwood Ridge for more playing time and opportunities.

CDO was considered a 5A powerhouse in almost every sport in the days before Ironwood Ridge was built. The Dorado's biggest rival was Salpointe Catholic.

These days, rivalries are always changing.

Pusch Ridge Christian Academy recently lost the bulk of its rivals. The Lion's move to the Class 2A Central Region - relocated from the 2A South after the 2004-05 school year - severed budding rivalries with schools such as Benson, Bisbee and Tombstone high schools. The new region has the private Oro Valley school traveling the same distance as it previously had in the 2A South, only now, it's in a different direction against new schools.

Catalina Foothills, Green Fields Country Day and Immaculate Heart high schools have no natural rivalries, whether it's due to a lack of a regional foe or overall athletic dominance.

This is not to say that Northwest schools haven't previously swapped their disdain for each other through harmless chicanery and practical hi-jinx. Before last year's football regular season finale between CDO and Mountain View, a host of students littered Mountain View's football field with thousands of plastic forks. The list of playful improprieties only grows from there.

A year later, CDO played the victim, this time at the hands of Ironwood Ridge when its parking lot was drenched in birdseed. It was the first of what promises to be many shots in the CDO-Ironwood Ridge rivalry.

Harmless fun for all involved - unless you count all those overfed birds or the guys who had to pick up all that silverware.

On the field, the rivalry has seen its share of good and bad as well.

CDO and Ironwood Ridge are evenly paired when it comes to their athletic programs - and in a good way. In all four team sports this winter the two programs are separated by no more than one spot in the region standings. Many games between the two are scheduled as the last game of the regular season, so a region or state berth can often be on the line.

Both schools do some wonderful work together. Project Graduation sees the schools work together and the subsequent fundraisers generate a lot of money toward graduation night.

That's the good. Like many rivalries, there's been some ugly.

On Nov. 4, the two programs met for the first time in football. The game was not as good-natured as the seeded parking lot prank and this time a different kind of bird got abused. En route to a 31-12 CDO win, the two sides scrapped in a game that eventually turned sour.

The evening culminated when senior Dorado running back Peter Romero upstaged the home crowd by dancing after a late touchdown on the Nighthawk 50-yard line. After the game, Romero had some choice words for his counterparts, including a graphic description about how he punched a not-so-innocent Nighthawk in the nether region.

When the boys soccer season rolled around, Ironwood Ridge turned out to be the aggressor when a Nighthawk player deliberately pushed down a CDO player, spat on him and delivered a bird of his own to the roaring crowd. The expectoration and finger profanity subsequently got that player booted from the Ironwood Ridge team.

Of course, this isn't the first time in history that ugliness ever erupted at a soccer game.

The funny, if not ironic, caveat of the CDO-Ironwood Ridge rivalry is that many of these students grew up going to middle and elementary schools together while playing on the same youth sports teams.

Off the field and in the stands the passion is real, but it's going to take some time to hone.

"Stick with swimming" was the chant geared towards Ironwood Ridge's multitalented Lindsey Miller while the senior All-State swimmer was taking foul shots during the girl's basketball game Jan. 27 at CDO.

It's clever and shows the student body does its homework. Still, others may need a push in the right direction.

Sitting in both student sections for the November football game, I expected more verbal daggers and witty punch lines aimed at the other side.

What I got was a mixed bag of bland, uninspired retorts about each other's odors - and that came from both sides. In the CDO stands, some students proved that there is no chivalry in this rivalry, by splashing water on a passing Ironwood Ridge student.

The key to sustaining this rivalry will be harnessing the good that spirited competition can create. Ugliness is inevitable; it just can't come to symbolize odium between the two schools.

Tonight I split my time between both stands and soak in the sights, sounds and slurs of a rivalry in the infant stages of what could be greatness. The game was clean and everyone kept their fingers to themselves.

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