Battling for a ticket to the Division II State Championship on Nov. 18, the Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks went up against the Cienega Bobcats in the semi-final round.
Going into the game, Nighthawks’ quarterback Tyler Williams said he expected a “dogfight.”
“They are here because they are a good team, and we were here tonight because we are a good team,” he said. “We knew it would be a battle, and that’s what it was.”
The Nighthawks set the tone early, turning to workhorse Mitch Fischer on offense. Fischer carried the ball three times on the first drive. On the third run, Fischer sprinted outside to run 40 yards to paydirt.
The Nighthawks led 7-0 with 10:02 left in the opening quarter.
After Cienega fumbled on the first offensive drive, the Nighthawks capitalized eight plays later when Fischer pounded the ball into the end zone from one yard out.
Fischer finished the game with 222 yards on 34 carries.
Leading 14-0 with 6:14 left in the opening quarter, the Bobcats found themselves in a hole.
The Bobcats’ offense bounced back in the ensuing driving, with Manny Vera scoring a six-yard touchdown to cap off an 11-play drive. With the extra point, the Nighthawks’ lead was cut to 14-7 with 11:38 left in the first half.
After the Cienega defense forced a quick three and out, the Bobcats got on the board again when quarterback Michael Archie connected with Edgar Poe for a 35-yard strike. With 7:47 left in the first half, the score was tied at 14.
The Nighthawks’ offense got into the red zone, but on fourth down, Coach Matt Johnson called for the field goal. The Cienega defense blocked the kick, and a scamper for the ball ensued, with the Bobcats recovering near midfield.
Before halftime, the Bobcats scored on a 25-yard field goal attempt to lead 17-14.
At the start of the third quarter, the Bobcats were poised to score again. With a third and goal, Archie put the ball up for grabs in the corner of the end zone. Nighthawks’ defender John Klass came down with the interception.
Klass, a junior, said, “I was playing my position, doing my job and was glad to be there to make a play we needed.”
With no score in the third quarter, it wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter that the Nighthawks got some momentum.
On third down, Fischer capped off an eight-play drive, leaping over the pile from one yard out, giving the Nighthawks the 21-17 lead with 8:15 left in the game.
With time running out, Cienega needed a touchdown. With the drive starting at the 29-yard-line, Archie went to work.
After six plays, Bobcats’ coach Nemer Hassey was faced with a tough decision, as Cienega faced a fourth-and-seven. With five minutes, and some change on the clock, Hassey opted to go for it.
Archie connected with Jalen Rogers for the first down.
After the game, Hassey said the decision to go for it was because of Fischer and the Nighthawks’ offense.
“We knew we weren’t going to stop them,” he said. “They had the momentum, and we knew we had to make that play if we were going to go on and win the game.”
Archie capitalized on the risky fourth-down call three plays later when he threw a 35-yard pass to Poe in the end zone. Poe beat the defender to make a diving go-ahead touchdown grab.
With just over three minutes to play, the Nighthawks still had a chance.
Before taking the field on the last drive, Williams said he wasn’t surprised Cienega didn’t give up, and he expected it to come down to the final minutes.
Instead of Williams taking the snaps as he has all season, Jake Matthews stepped behind center.
Johnson said Matthews had to take the snaps because Williams was unable to throw the ball due to an injury sustained a week earlier.
Johnson dialed up three consecutive passing plays, with Matthews being sacked for a big loss on second down, setting up a third and 17.
Fischer came down with a reception to get 15 of those yards on third down, but the Nighthawks still faced a fourth and two.
Handing the ball to Fischer on fourth down, the Cienega defense swarmed the line of scrimmage. Fischer was inches short, giving Cienega the 24-21 victory, and a ticket to play Chapparal for the state championship on Saturday, Nov. 24.
After losing three consecutive years in the state semi-finals, this will be Cienega’s first trip to state.
After the game, Johnson said, “While we would have liked to have gone a game further, I am proud of this team. We are proud of the seniors and their effort.”