It’s early in the season, but baseball coach Dennis Toia is proving he has the chops to fill the big shoes left by his predecessor.

Toia is this year’s coach of the Ironwood Ridge High School Nighthawks baseball team. Last year, under the watchful eye of coach Jason Hisey, the team won its first region title and a pair of playoff games.

Since then, Hisey has moved on to coach baseball at Pima Community College. Toia is using his experience as Hisey’s assistant for a year and before that, coaching in Kansas for 10 years, to maintain the momentum the team began in 2010.

The Nighthawks have high hopes under Toia, as they defeated Catalina Foothills High School Falcons, 9-2, last week. The Falcons were title game runners-up a year ago.

“I’m a Tucson boy who came home,” Toia said.

He’s not looking to make too much out of an early-season win, although it came against a powerhouse team like the Falcons.

“We could make a deep run this year,” Toia said, “but we want to take it one inning at a time.”

Last Tuesday, at Foothills, the Nighthawks were led by their 1-3 batters, Clay Matthews, Jake Matthews and Brandon Matthews.

Clay had two hits and Jake had two. Brandon pitched five strong innings, as he allowed just one run on three hits and struck out seven batters.

“We built momentum from last year’s (playoff run),” said Clay Matthews. “We’re a better team this year.”

The Nighthawks wasted no time as Clay Matthews opened the game with a triple, and later scored on a force play.

In fact, the Nighthawks scored in each of their first four innings, building a 5-1 lead entering the fifth.

Pitching was the biggest strength for the Nighthawks, a big change from their hit-and-miss throwing from a year ago. The team never had problems scoring runs; instead, keeping down the opposition kept them from challenging for a possible state title.

“We have a more consistent pitching staff,” Clay Matthews said. “They’re not afraid to go after people.”

During last week’s game, the Nighthawks put it away with four in the fifth. With two runners on, Travis Chavez singled home a run. Clay Matthews and Jake Matthews followed with run-scoring singles before an error brought in another run for a 9-1 Ironwood lead. Chavez finished with two hits from the ninth spot.

“Our pitching staff did a good job of keeping them off balance,” Toia said.

To follow the team this season, visit ridgebaseball.org.

E-mail editor@explorernews.com.

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