The blow that began the end of the five-month ride took only 13 seconds.
In Friday’s 5A-II semifinal game at Chandler High School, #1 Peoria Centennial senior running back John Hughes returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, putting the 10-2 Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks in an early hole.
Ironwood Ridge was never able to dig out, losing to the Coyotes, 41-14.
“They are a hard team to come back against when you give them 14 points in the first minute,” said head coach Gary Minor.
Centennial, the most dominant team in 5A-II over the past three seasons, used a relentless, blitzing defense to pressure Nighthawk sophomore quarterback Tyler D’Amore into three interceptions.
One of those interceptions came on Ironwood Ridge’s second offensive play, setting up an easy 3-yard touchdown run for Hughes, and leaving the Nighthawks trailing 14-0 slightly more than a minute into the game.
Ironwood Ridge did not allow a score for the rest of the first quarter, instead doing some scoring of its own. D’Amore connected with senior tight end Ray Cottman for a 68-yard touchdown pass, ending the quarter at 14-7.
Two long, second-quarter Centennial drives ended with touchdowns before Ironwood Ridge junior running back Adrian Brahler recovered a fumbled pass in the end zone to score the final points of the half, making the score 27-14.
The second quarter also saw standout Nighthawk running back Jake Fischer leave the game on offense, re-injuring a shoulder first hurt in the Oct. 31 loss to Sunnyside.
“Not having him was huge,” said Minor.
With Fischer gone, Ironwood Ridge’s ground game fizzled.
Brahler led the team with 27 yards on 10 carries, the majority of the team’s 31 total rushing yards.
The Nighthawks’ passing game actually outdistanced the Coyotes, 255 yards to 172, with D’Amore forced to throw for most of the game due to the scoring deficit.
One person benefited from D’Amore’s desperation passing – senior wide receiver Scott Campbell, who finished the last game of his Ironwood Ridge career with four catches for 168 yards, a whopping 42 yards per catch.
The Nighthawk defense was better than the score indicated, limiting Centennial’s Hughes to 52 yards on 17 carries, and forced one fumble.
Hughes was lethal in the red zone, however, scoring on runs of 2, 3 and 6 yards.
The inability of the Ironwood Ridge defense to forced turnovers, coupled with Centennial’s quickness, put the Nighthawks on the losing side of a 5-1 turnover deficit, one that hurt Ironwood Ridge, according to Minor.
“Their team speed, especially defensively, was exceptional,” said Minor. “They were much faster than we were.”
Despite the disappointing finish, the season was the most successful in school history.
The 2008 Nighthawks gave Ironwood Ridge its first 10-win season, first trip to the semifinals, and a perfect 7-0 home record.
“There’s a nucleus of seniors that have made an unparalleled contribution to our program,” said Minor.
“Jake (Fischer), Ray (Cottman), (center) Marvin Snodgrass, and (offensive tackle) Marcus Klune have been our leaders all year,” he added.
They will be missed.
“They’ve led us further than we’ve ever gone in the playoffs; I don’t know how we can replace those four guys,” said Minor.
On defense, the Nighthawks lose the imposing linebacker presence of Cottman and Fischer, and “(tackle) Tyrone Williams, (defensive end) Zach Booker, and (defensive end) Chad Dietrich will also be very hard to replace on the defensive line,” said Minor.
Minor said the team was a special one.
“(I will remember) the commitment that so many of our players made,” said Minor.
Despite the heavy roster losses, there are already bright spots for next season.
“Adrian Brahler is easily our best returning player,” said Minor. “He’s a two-way stalwart.”
“Guys like D’Amore, (sophomore wide receiver) Trevor Wesley, and (Jake’s little brother, freshman) Mitch Fischer look to make us very explosive at the offensive skill positions,” he added.
Backups will have to prove their worth as starters on the line, said Minor.
“(Linemen) Dylan Urton and Tanner Todd will have to step up and help a line develop that will have a lot of new faces,” he said.
Minor, who said earlier in the year that he wished the “season would never end,” now has to look toward 2009. He will always see one thing clearly.
“I will always believe that they weren’t 41-14 better than us,” he said.