Yes, Ironwood Ridge, there is a Santa Claus, and his name is Jake Fischer.
The senior running back’s 216 rushing yards helped bring the 10-2 Nighthawks the gift they wanted most of all on Friday – a 24-17 playoff victory over 5A-II rival Sunnyside and a spot in the Dec. 5 semifinal game against undefeated #1 Centennial.
Fischer, knocked out of the first Sunnyside game with an arm injury, averaged nine yards a touch, at times carrying multiple defenders on his back while bulldozing for huge chunks of yardage. He scored touchdowns on runs of 7 and 16 yards.
“Having Jake Fischer back was huge,” said Nighthawks’ head coach Gary Minor.
Ironwood Ridge’s win was especially sweet, said Minor, because in the previous contest between the teams on Oct. 31, Sunnyside mounted a huge comeback in the fourth quarter and won 27-24, causing many to question the Nighthawks’ ability to finish.
“We’d gotten plenty of motivation from those who said we quit at their place,” said Minor.
There was no quit in Ironwood Ridge on Friday, as every facet of their game seemed to be near-flawless.
Complementing Fischer’s dominant rushing was a well- managed game from sophomore quarterback Tyler D’Amore, who threw for 101 yards with no interceptions. D’Amore also used solid field vision and quick feet to escape the Blue Devil defense time and time again, often turning broken plays into gains and ending with 35 yards on the ground.
“Tyler D’Amore did an excellent job tonight,” said Minor.
Catching the majority of D’Amore’s passes were senior wide receiver Scott Campbell, with six grabs for 56 yards, and senior tight end Ray Cottman with two catches for 24 yards. Both Cottman grabs kept crucial Nighthawk drives alive.
Defensively, linebacker Cottman made an even bigger contribution, flying to the ball on nearly every down and often crushing vaunted Blue Devil running back Manny Aguilar behind the line of scrimmage.
“Ray Cottman and Fischer were definitely the spear carriers today,” said Minor.
Those spears found the heart of the Sunnyside rushing game.
In the first meeting between the two teams, Aguilar and the Blue Devils racked up 187 yards rushing. On Friday, they managed only 13.
Senior defensive lineman Tyrone Williams “just stuffed their running game up front,” said Minor.
“Their run game tore us up last time, so we just wanted to come out here and stop it and I think we did very well,” said Nighthawks’ senior safety Brandon Flores.
Eliminating the Blue Devils’ run game forced region-leading Sunnyside quarterback Jesus Vega to try to with the game through the air. Vega threw for 203 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown strike to Marty Calles in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Vega, aside from the big plays he was largely stifled by the secondary, completing half his passes and throwing three interceptions – two of those reeled in by Ironwood Ridge senior defensive back Nick Carlson, and one by Flores.
“(Those were) big picks,” said Minor.
Something else was big on Friday — the Nighthawks kept their cool during a fourth quarter rally by Sunnyside that, for a moment, seemed to echo the one on Oct. 31.
But this was a different night.
One play showcased how different.
After Vega’s long bomb to Calles brought the score to 17-7 midway through the fourth quarter, Sunnyside lined up for an onside kick. A Blue Devil recovery would have given Sunnyside the ball at midfield, as well as the momentum.
Cottman had other ideas, jumping to catch the onside kick and then churning an untouched 60 yards down the home sideline for a touchdown, putting the Nighthawks up 23-7.
Senior kicker Justin Laszczak added the extra point to make the score 24-7, and the defense did the rest as the Sunnyside comeback faltered at 24-17.
The win gave Ironwood Ridge the school’s first 10-win season, and an undefeated 7-0 record at home.
“Our kids played so hard and Sunnyside didn’t give up, they made some big plays to get back to where they had a shot,” said Minor. “We just overpowered them tonight.”