Ironwood Ridge girls volleyball coach Bill Lang is a man with a (game) plan.

Players write down goals for every practice, have a strict conditioning regimen overseen by a dedicated fitness coach, and participate in precise pre-game rituals aimed at creating unity and enthusiasm among all levels of the program.

According to Lang, this is precisely why the Nighthawks, 13-1 and facing Sunnyside (1-12) at 6 p.m. Thursday, are ranked #1 in state 5A-II, and why they clinched a second straight 5A-II Southern B Division championship with a victory over then-#2 Mountain View last Tuesday.

“We have a system here, a philosophy, the girls all buy into it, and it seems to be working,” said Lang.

Even more impressive: the Nighthawks could have struggled this season, losing 79 percent of the scoring from a 2007 squad that finished the regular season undefeated and went to the semifinals of the state tournament, where Ironwood Ridge lost to Glendale Ironwood.

Instead of chalking up 2008 as a rebuilding year, Lang looked at his personnel and “tweaked” the system.

“We play to our strengths, which this year are defense and ball control, since we don’t have the offense to go right at people,” said Lang.

Lang points to the victory over Mountain View as an example.

“We won that game below the nets; we would have had a hard time matching up with their size up front,” he added.

The 3-1 victory over Mountain View was largely a defensive show, as junior middle blocker Briana Hughes had 15 kills and three blocks, and senior libero Michelle Link extinguished numerous Mountain View scoring opportunities, finishing with 11 digs.

“Michelle is solid, she is a three-year leader for us, she watched a lot of video and did what she needed to do,” said Lang.

The importance of Tuesday’s contest was not lost on the sizable contingent of Nighthawk fans who traveled to Mountain View; chants of “Let’s Go Nighthawks” routinely drowned out the home crowd, and at times the Mountain Lions’ gym seemed to be in the midst of an Ironwood Ridge pep rally.

“We sort of had our eyes on that match for a while, we knew it would have implications on the division title,” Lang added.

Despite already wearing the division crown with four regular season matches remaining, Lang said the Nighthawks can’t lose focus.

“Every game is still important because of power points (and the state ranking they provide); that seeds the state tournament,” he said.

Teams seeded in the top eight heading into the playoffs have home-court advantage during the first round of matches beginning Nov. 12; that advantage goes to the top four seeds in the second round of matches beginning Nov. 13.

Lang has a very good reason for wanting to play on his team’s court.

“Ironwood Ridge has never lost a playoff game at home,” he said.

Another incentive for the Nighthawks to maintain their top rank: they would not have to play second-ranked Peoria Centennial until the championship match. The Coyotes handed Ironwood Ridge their only loss in early September.

“That would be ideal for us,” said returning senior outside hitter Kirsten Linaker.

Lang is less concerned with specifics.

“You have to play everybody to win state,” he said.

What is it about the 2008 Nighthawks that will enable them to “play everybody” en route to a state title, when the undefeated 2007 team could not do so? For both players and coaches, hard work in practice seems to have instilled a confidence and camaraderie that may be the intangible quality needed to win a championship.

“We are working out and conditioning a lot more than we did (last year),” said Linaker.

“We’re playing for each other and we are extremely dedicated; this is the hardest-working team yet,” said senior setter Malyree Harper.

Lang agrees.

“Last year’s players were gamers, they came up big in games, but didn’t work as hard in practice,” he said. “This year, they are workers, both in games and in practice.”

“We don’t ever talk about winning,” added Lang. “Winning is a by-product of all our hard work.”

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