The 2013 high school football season is officially under way, with teams hitting the field on Aug. 23, including returning state champions Ironwood Ridge High School.
While the Nighthawks will look to defend their title, other teams in the region are looking to get back on track.
Canyon Del Oro High School, Mountain View High School and Marana High School will take the field this Friday.
In the first game of the season, the reigning Division II state champion Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks had a lot of unanswered questions as the new football season approached.
On Friday, in a game that spanned about four hours due to lightning delays, the Nighthawks answered one of those questions: How does a team with only one returning starter pull off a win over the always-competitive Liberty High School?
The answer was senior running back Jake Vartanian and sophomore running back Cole McLafferty.
The two combined for 56 carries, 357 rushing yards, and six of the Nighthawks’ seven touchdowns to lead the Ironwood Ridge to a 42-40 victory in a game that would go down to the wire.
With less than a minute remaining, Liberty junior quarterback Tyler Wyatt looked to even things up with a two-point conversion following a touchdown pass to receiver Gage Lytle.
But Wyatt, who managed 322 total offensive yards, two field goals, two rushing touchdowns, and two passing touchdowns, fell short on the conversion with an incomplete pass, and the win went to the Nighthawks.
But it wasn’t easy for Ironwood Ridge.
Early on, things looked grim after Wyatt broke away for a 72-yard score seconds into the game to put the Lions up seven.
The Lions kept it going when Wyatt connected with Lytle on a 15-yard touchdown pass to make it a 14-0 start.
McLafferty answered back midway through the second quarter with a one-yard rushing score, but Wyatt knocked in a field goal to close out the half and send the Nighthawks to the locker room trailing 17-7.
An hour-long rain and lightning delay at halftime gave the Nighthawks ample time to evaluate their strategy before taking the field again.
It proved beneficial because the Nighthawks came out charged up, scoring 28 points in the third quarter off two touchdowns by Vartanian and two more by McLafferty to put the Nighthawks ahead 35-31.
Vartanian would strike again with eight minutes left in the game to build a 42-31 lead for the Nighthawks, but Liberty rallied back to put the game within eight after a field goal by Wyatt.
Wyatt then hit Lytle again for a 44-yard touchdown pass to put the game within two, but his pass sailed out of the end zone, allowing Ironwood Ridge to run out the clock and steal the first win at home.
Vartanian finished the night with 201 yards on 22 carries, while McLafferty managed 34 carries for 156 yards.
The two running backs will need to keep up that momentum if they are to make up for the absence of Anthony Braunreiter, who ran for 1,766 yards last season before graduating.
Starting at quarterback for the Nighthawks was Michael Franzese, who will look to take over the leadership role from Tyler Williams, who also graduated.
Franzese finished the game 5-15 for 80 yards.
Also missing from this year’s lineup for Ironwood Ridge is Jake Matthews, who has committed to playing at the University of Arizona.
The Nighthawks (1-0) next face Cienega High School on Aug. 30.