September 7, 2005 - Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Palo Verde High School gymnasium in a dark, secluded enclave rests the girls volleyball team of Ironwood Ridge High School.

Like a pride of lionesses, the athletes sit, lounge and sleep, bodies draped over one another on the cold concrete floor.

While teams from Marana, Sunnyside and Cienega high schools slug it out in the late rounds of the Tucson Unified School District Volleyball Invitational, Sept. 3, the ladies of Ironwood Ridge are the definition of calm.

The championship match against Catalina Foothills High School looms in the not-so-distant future.

For the Nighthawks, the game against the Class 4A Kino Region powerhouse, Foothills, is just another in a line of early season challenges designed to prepare them for a return trip to the state finals and beyond.

As defending 4A state runners-up, the Nighthawks, who return eight letter winners, believe the only place to go is up.

"Personally, after we lost, I was already thinking to next year," said Ironwood Ridge junior outside hitter Chelsea Crane about the team's loss to Chaparral in the state finals and the task ahead for this season. "We're going to have to show up. The next season starts the day after the state tournament."

With the season finally upon Crane and her teammates, Ironwood Ridge has wasted no time in getting into tough matches to test the team's mettle. But the road back to the state finals has been a bumpy one, so far.

The Nighthawks dropped their first two games to Glendale Sunnyslope High School, 25-14, 25-23, and to Cactus Shadows High School, 25-12, 25-23. The loss to Cactus Shadows snapped a 17-home winning streak dating back to 2003.

The Nighthawks didn't stay defeated long. They pulled off wins over Catalina, Sunnyside, Cholla, Buena and Cienega high schools to advance to the finals showdown against Foothills in the Tucson Unified School District Invitational.

What the Palo Verde Gym crowd got was an epic early season battle - one which saw Foothills exact its revenge on the Nighthawks. It was payback in the works for 10 months for when the Falcons were spiked from the quarterfinals of the state playoffs by Ironwood Ridge.

In a game that featured the starting six from the Club Cactus Juniors 17-1 team - Kelly Brady and Alexandra Johnson from Ironwood Ridge and Maggie Binder, Teddie Schaffer, Kiyomi Pyle and Brittin Alfred from Foothills - the Falcons edged out the Nighthawks in two games, 27-25, 25-19.

In a thrilling first game, both squads exchanged leads nine times and forced 15 ties. Despite falling short in both games, Ironwood Ridge showed its resiliency, twice erasing seven-point deficits.

"They caught us in some bad rotations," said Ironwood Ridge head coach Bill Lang after the game, citing his team's need to improve its serve reception as its main weakness. "Once we clean that up, we'll be among the best in the state."

Three early season losses aren't causing Lang to lose sleep. This season, the coach intentionally loaded the front end of the schedule with tough matches against state contenders.

"We've got a lot of respect for Ironwood Ridge," Cactus Shadows head coach Karen Sitkiewicz said after knocking off the Nighthawks. "They're going to get a lot better."

For Lang, it's not where you are now, it's where you are going to be in the end.

"Obviously, that's one of the things we are thinking about just because of last year," Lang said about winning state this season. "Our short-term goal right now is to try to identify ourselves with this team."

After losing in the finals last November, Lang and his staff decided to make some changes for the upcoming season, including the addition of a new offense and defensive schemes.

Should the Nighthawks return to the finals, they will do so without several key performers from last year - most notably, Arizona player of the year Michelle McLain. The former setter is now a student at Arizona State University.

Replacing the popular McLain at setter are junior Elena Pawley and sophomore Christina Solverson.

Even without McLain, a member of the school's Fab Four, a quartet of seniors last season who were the original four from the program's inaugural year, the Nighthawks may be deeper than they've ever been.

The shuffling of the lineup isn't a move made out of indecision, however. It's more like a strategic move, Lang said.

"We're going to have better practices next week because everybody has game experience," said Lang, who added the experience will be vital come playoff time.

The roster is so deep with talented players, in fact, that a starting six has yet to be determined. In the six games the squad played in the Tucson Unified School District Invitational, Lang did not use the same lineup once. Combine an experienced bench with potential starters Kara Bauman (an early season candidate for Player of the Year honors), Ashley Humphrey, Stephanie Link, Audrey Barbera and Crane, and the Nighthawks' confidence is soaring despite their 5-3 record.

"Everyone has their own role," said Bauman, a senior middle blocker. "We're still figuring it all out."

To inspire leadership roles throughout the team, the Nighthawks elect a new captain each week based on performance in practice and games. Senior outside hitter Humphrey served as the team captain for the Tucson Unified School District Invitational.

Inspiration from an outside source is something this Nighthawk team does not need. Since May, the team has met three times a week at six in the morning to run, condition and lift weights.

"Success is not something we can control," Lang said. "Excellence at everything we do. We can control that. If we have an excellent effort and then if we work hard on our performance, winning will become a byproduct."

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