Some people may have been surprised a year ago, when the Ironwood Ridge boys' tennis team took a #5 seed in the state playoffs and turned it into a state championship, head coach Ryan Bais knows.
No surprises this season.
"Last year we were young and snuck up on some teams," said Bais. "This year we're the top seed, we returned five of our six starters — now people are worried about us."
"We're just trying to take their best shots," he added.
If the first round of state playoff action on Monday is an indicator, Ironwood Ridge certainly seems up to the challenge.
The #1 Nighthawks defeated #16-seed Kingman 5-0 at Ironwood Ridge, ensuring home court advantage for their quarterfinal match up with Rincon on Wednesday.
Led by #1 singles player junior Timothy Holten's 6-1, 6-1 victory over Jon Casson, the Nighthawks quickly dispatched the Bulldogs on a hot, bright day, taking slightly over an hour to secure advancement to the next round. Ironwood Ridge defeated Rincon three times in the regular season.
Rounding out the Ironwood Ridge scoring on Monday: junior Dillon Kennedy defeated Dustin Beasley (6-0, 6-0), sophomore Dylan Vo beat Zach Hiatt, (6-0, 6-0); senior Andrew Vo won over Cody Schonover (6-1, 6-0), and Conor Spiegel outplayed Taylor Aldridge (6-0, 6-0).
"All our kids, all the way through are real solid," said Bais. "They know what it is to play tennis, they play competitively, and they're serious about it."
While the Nighthawks' formidable lineup is talented from top to bottom, Bais said Andrew Vo'ssenior leadership counts for a lot this time of year.
"It's interesting, you always see when you have seniors, they tend to realize this is their last shot," said Bais. "They step up and take ownership of the team and take a leadership role."
While that last match will come eventually, Bais and the Nighthawks are focused on continuing the type of play that gave them an undefeated record and a 5A-II Southern region championship.
"We have to be on top of our game, people are trying to catch us," said Bais. "Nothing really changes for us, we just have to go out there and play."
That philosophy hasn't changed for Ironwood Ridge, despite the target that comes with defending a state title and earning a #1 seed in the state tournament. Bais and the team seem to relish it.
"It's gratifying to be 16-0 and be able to defend that spot," said Bais.
Ironwood Ridge girls' tennis
Two hours after the boys' tennis team authoritatively defeated Kingman by a 5-0 total, the #4-seed Nighthawk girls' team triumphed decisively over Phoenix Camelback by the same score, ending the Spartans' season and propelling Ironwood Ridge into a quarterfinal match up with #12 Anthem Boulder Creek on Wednesday.
Headed by dominant performances from the junior / senior co-captain duo of Shannon Contreras and Maile Hoffmann, the Nighthawks led throughout.
"(Contreras and Hoffmann) set the tone," said head coach Bill Little. "It's done in a very professional way — they go about their business."
That business-like tone was evident on Monday, as Ironwood Ridge efficiently utilized stifling defense and quick-moving offense en route to victory.
"We did very well," said Little. "We won five straight and the team played up to their game."
In addition to Contreras and Hoffmann's identical 6-0, 6-1 victories, winning efforts from three freshmen — Alex Prassas (6-1, 6-1), Holly Thomson (6-1, 6-2) and McKenzie Grenfell (6-0, 6-1) gave the Nighthawks the push they needed.
"We have got to try to keep that slope going up," Little said. "Right now that's the way it works, everyone gets better every time they play."
According to Little, improvement this time of year is important, as Ironwood Ridge's on-court success gives teams added incentive to play harder.
"Ironwood Ridge has a quite a good reputation in tennis," said Little. "Us and the boys' team."
That target won't faze Little as the team moves deeper into the playoffs.
"We've already established the fact that we're a team to beat," he said with a smile.