Canyon Del Oro head football coach Dustin Peace runs his players through an exercise last week on the team’s practice field.

Randy Metcalf/The Explorer

Starting Friday night, the 2012 high school football season will officially begin with some big matches for local teams. Ironwood Ridge will look to build on last season, Canyon Del Oro will look to carry a late-season run forward, and Marana, Mountain View and Pusch Ridge will look for a more positive outcome.

Ironwood Ridge

Losing a star player is never an easy process for a sports team. When that player happens to be one of the best high school running backs the city has seen, moving on as a team can be an extremely daunting task. As the 2012 high school football season gets under way, the Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks football team must find a way to function successfully without Mitch Fischer, who graduated in May and is now on the team at Pima Community College.

For head coach Matt Johnson, the strategy is less about filling Fischer’s shoes, and more about other players establishing their own legacies.

“You can’t replace a guy like Mitch,” Johnson said. “He was a two-level threat both on and off the field. He was an excellent leader for the team, as well as efficient in the classroom. Playing without him will certainly be hard to do.”

Other key players lost from last year’s roster include linebackers Tyson Otuafi, C.J. Healey, and John Post. While Johnson recognizes the challenge that lies ahead, he’s also confident with the talent this year’s crop possesses. Leading the way is star quarterback Tyler Williams.

“Tyler’s an exceptional kid,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s long runs as QB, or big plays at safety, he’s an impact player.”

Williams is a triple-threat athlete, as he also plays point guard for the school’s basketball team and a part of the state-champion 400 meter relay team in track. He already has multiple offers to play NCAA Division I football from San Diego State, Colorado, Army, and Air Force.

Jake Matthews is another key senior leader on the Nighthawks team. He is a versatile player much like Williams, as he can spend time at quarterback, wide receiver or defensive back.

What really impresses Johnson about Matthews is his equal work ethic both in his athletics and his studies. He is apart of a group of scholarly players on the team that Johnson takes pride in.

“Jake is part of a senior class consisting of 10 guys with above a 3.5 (grade point average),” Johnson said. “He’s a really smart, hard-working kid, and just an excellent presence to have in the locker room.”

While Matthews is capable on the football field, his other passion is playing on the baseball diamond. He has Division I offers pertaining to both sports, including one from Army for football and from Air Force for baseball.

After two straight years of losing in the semifinals of the state tournament, the Nighthawks are determined to get over the hump. IRHS fell 38-28 to Centennial in 2010, and were barely edged 24-21 by Cienega last year, but Johnson won’t settle for anything less than a championship trophy this season.

“Every year our goal is to win a state championship, it starts and ends there,” Johnson said.

The Nighthawks will put last season’s success to the test Friday night against inner-district rival Canyon Del Oro. Kick off is 7 p.m.

Canyon del Oro

When it comes to last season, CDO  head football coach Dustin Peace wants to make one thing clear: it wasn’t a letdown.

“It was a down season compared to previous seasons, but it definitely wasn’t a complete disappointment,” Peace said. “We lost our first two games, but I was excited how we ended out the season. Our goal this season is to start off strong.”

CDO is losing a couple of their star players from last year’s roster, most notably tight end/linebacker like Blake Martinez. Martinez, who led the Dorados in nearly every statistical category on both offense and defense, is now playing at Stanford.

“Any time you lose a caliber player Blake Martinez, it’s going to be tough to replace him,” Peace said. “He was an absolute monster on the field, and really helped lead the team. We have a good group of linebackers this year though, and they’ve done really well in training and practice.”

Also now graduated and gone from last year is quarterback Cooper Smith, whose presence Peace greatly valued both on the field and in the locker room.

“Obviously, the last three years we’ve had some really good quarterbacks. We’re losing Cooper, who was just a great all-around leader. We have a senior named Leo Kawahm, who will be more than competent in taking over the QB role.”

Despite the team’s losses, Peace is very optimistic about who he has coming back and players who he expects to step up and play important factors in the team’s success.

“Expectations are high,” Peace said. “The kids have worked really hard this offseason. We have a much more confident group that believes in their ability. They learned a lot from last year. We have a lot of guys returning up front.”

Those returning players will serve as the leaders for this season’s CDO squad as they look to get back to their dominant ways.

“[Senior] Isaac Chacon, our tailback and safety, is going to be a good leader for us who worked hard this offseason,” Peace said. “Tommy Sawyer  is our wideout and safety. He was just a freshman last year but he’s going to be a Division 1 player. [Junior] Max Anae is our replacement for Blake Martinez.”

The Dorados will begin their quest on Aug. 24, with an away game at their local rival Ironwood Ridge.

“All we can do is take it one day at a time,” Peace said. “The 24th will be a big one.”

Mountain View

Taking over a high school football program always takes some getting used to, both for the new coach and the players. For first-year Mountain View head coach Clarence McRae, the situation is especially delicate, as he becomes the fourth coach in four years for the rattled Mountain Lions team. Despite the leadership inconsistency though, McRae insists the process of taking the reins has gone smoothly.

“The adjustment isn’t too hard,” McRae said. “It’s football, I’m just going from one school to the next. I’m trying to implement some things, and get the team on the right path.”

One of the ways McRae has established quick trust among his team was by putting on his self-designed “Bam Camp,” titled after his preferred nickname. The camp was run the last week of July for the varsity and JV teams, and involved individual instruction, fundamentals and drills. McRae was encouraged by the results.

“We had a great turn-out for the camp,” McRae said. “The guys came out and worked extremely hard, and I think they learned some things and we actually took the time to get better. It was an excellent opportunity to get the guys around each other and continue to grow as football players.”

The Mountain Lions have retained all of their key players from last year, and therefore will have strong senior leadership.

“I think we have a lot of key players. Our quarterback Cody Rochon will do a great job for us. Corbin Gouby is a middle linebacker who was a great player for the team last year.”

Despite a disappointing 4-6 season last year, Coach McRae believes his team has the ability to compete at the highest level this season.  

Mountain View takes on longtime rival Marana in their season opener on Aug. 24. Both teams have a lot to prove, and McRae is looking forward to seeing his team try to defend their home field and kick off their schedule with a win.


For the Marana High School football team, there is nowhere to go but up. After a winless season full of frustration and despair in 2011, new head coach Andy Litten relishes the opportunity to right the ship.

“It’s been a lot of work, but the kids have really bought into the program,” Litten said. “We’re really excited to get started, me and the rest of the staff. There’s a lot of excitement in the air here in Marana.”

Litten is fully aware of the struggles the team dealt with last year, but he is confident that through the intense training and practice the kids are putting in that this year’s group will be able to turn those around.

“We’re kind of old-school here,” Litten said. “We’re just going to work real hard, and bring our system in. It’s really all about the kid buy-in. They’ve really bought in, and they understand the system.”

Litten is optimistic about the leadership his senior players will provide for the team this year.

“Our senior leader right now is Davon Roebuck,” Litten said. “He was voted in as our team captan right before we started our official practicing, and he just does everything right. He’s here all the time, he always works hard, and he’s a great leader to the kids who shows by example.

What impresses Litten the most about his key players is the high work ethic and determination they show.

“Jeff Carranza has really stepped up as a wide receiver,” Litten said. “He works really hard, and he’s one of our passing game’s biggest threats. Dennis Wilson is a kid who came in late last year from Florida, and had a hard time making the adjustment. This year though he’s been here all summer, worked really hard, and he’s definitely a threat.”

One of the biggest positive signs for the Marana team is their strong collection of junior talent.

“As a team, we are less senior-heavy and more junior-heavy. We have a lot of juniors who have varsity experience from last year,” Litten said.  Ben Honea is our QB, and he’s our junior leader.  Austin Soszynski [a linebacker] was voted as our other team captain by the kids, he’s easily one of the strongest guys on our team, and a quiet leader.”

While it won’t be hard to show improvement over last season, Litten hopes to reestablish a winning program.

The Marana Tigers will start their comeback process with an away game at Mountain View on Aug. 24.

Pusch Ridge

In comparison to the other high school football teams in the Northwest Tucson area, the Pusch Ridge Lions are in a league of their own. Literally, the school competes in Division V due to its much smaller size. That does not lessen its relevance in the high school football discussion though, as the school has shown a lot of success in the past. After an uncharacteristically down season last year, new head coach Troy Cropp will attempt to restore their solid reputation.

“It’s been a mile a minute, very fast paced [making the adjustment],” Cropp said.  “I think the kids are responding well to the new system, and the lifting system and athletic development program. I’d say it’s as good as can be expected giving the fast-paced nature of what we’ve been doing.”

This is Cropp’s first ever foray into high school football after gaining experience in youth and middle school leagues the past decade. He is diving in quickly though, and working to get his team in the best shape possible.

“We started right away with a new strength training program,” Cropp said. “We were marred with injuries last year. We’re hoping that the stronger kids will also have reduced injuries as result of their newfound strength and athleticism. Installing an offense and defense that suits the strength of our program will lead to more success on the field as well.”

Cropp also takes confidence in the fact that many of his players already have varsity experience from last season.

“We were a young team last year,” Cropp said. “They’re all getting older, and that will lead to more productivity.”

Cropp feels his squad has a very-well balanced roster filled with many guys who will contribute, led by quarterback Grayson Barghols.

“Grayson, who is also the student body president, is a very smart kid who’s definitely a leader and will probably be one of our captains. He’s our second-year quarterback, a good kid with really good heart and really good desire. We’ve got some really good defensive players that I think are going to step up and play well. A lot of kids are going to step up I have a feeling.”

Pusch Ridge as a school is rooted in the mission to establish students with strong values and leadership qualities, and that carries over into Cropp’s hopes for his team.

“[My priority is} developing leaders who are humble and willing to fight for their goals, and push hard to achieve what they set out to do,” Cropp said.

One of Cropp’s biggest motivations for accepting the Pusch Ridge job was the knowledge of their ideals and standards. Although athletics are important, Cropp knows that most of the guys on his team are going to succeed in other ways and he is determined to have a positive impact on the type of men they grow into.

Pusch Ridge will host the season opener on Friday, Aug. 24 against Joy Christian. Kick off is 7 p.m.


2012 Kickoff 

Friday, Aug. 24

Ironwood Ridge vs. Canyon Del Oro:  Game is at Ironwood Ridge High School. Kick off is 7 p.m.

Marana Tigers  vs. Mountain View

Game is at Marana High School. Kick off is 7 p.m.

Pusch Ridge vs. Joy Christian

Game is at Pusch Ridge Christian Academy. Kick off is 7 p.m.

Can’t make the game?

Log onto The Explorer’s website,, for game updates and scores every Friday.

Get your 2012 guide to the Northwest football teams in the special edition on Aug. 29.

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