At 6:30 p.m. Friday, the traffic on Naranja in Oro Valley was backed up to … La Cañada, far, far away from the gleaming, crowned, impossibly green football field where defending champion Canyon Del Oro and Ironwood Ridge would do battle at 7.
Frustrated fans parked roadside, and walked. Or ran, rather than miss the kickoff. A Long Real Estate agent picked up open house signs at La Cholla, their arrows pointing away from the game. Not this night. For these people, all arrows aim toward Ironwood's house.
There may have been 5,000 people at the game, yet the enormous field-side parking lot still had spaces 35 minutes from La Cañada. It was a quick walk under pastel skies on a lovely evening, the Tortolitas, Tucsons and Catalinas filling horizons, to see Dorado star Ka'Deem Carey avoid the Nighthawk pursuit, then deliver a hit on a closing defender. Oh, Ka'Deem, so quick, so fast, so strong. A special talent, worth the price of admission by himself.
Ironwood Ridge, under second-year head coach Matt Johnson, kinda sorta keeps Ka'Deem bottled up. Contained? Out of the end zone, at least. The Nighthawks take advantage of a CDO turnover, the frenetic-footed Mitch Fischer rolling 55 yards to first and goal, then scoring for a 6-0 lead. The home stands erupt.
CDO responds. So does the Ironwood Ridge flag team, and its marching band. As the clock moves toward halftime, young people in uniforms, if not pads, gather beyond the playing surface, the girls stretching, the drummers and keyboard players warming up, their attention not on the game but on their game. This is their night to play before thousands, too.
Not that band parents and siblings are watching. They're working the concession stands, and it's a good night to do so. Pizza. Pop. Cotton candy. Much-needed funds for activities.
At halftime, both teams have to walk the same path up a small hill to the locker room. The Nighthawks wait, allowing CDO to go first. Classy. This night, there's no blatant poor sportsmanship, no taunting. Young men give opponents a hand up and a pat on the butt. They're competing like mad, but they're not angry. Really good to see.
On the field, athletes impress with individual moments. The Dorados' Jesse Caldwell, a 6-4, 262-pound football player, blows through the Ironwood Ridge line to block a punt through the end zone. Missed assignment? Maybe, but Caldwell startles with his quickness. (An observation: Yes, CDO has Ka'Deem and skill-position talent, but it's the kids up front who could become very special.)
Fischer, Ironwood's relentless running back, blows through for 85 yards, a touchdown and a 13-8 lead. The crowd goes crazy. So, too, does a refrigerator of an Arizona linebacker, Jake Fischer, Mitch's older brother. "Woooooooo!" Jake screams on the sideline.
What's it feel like to see your little brother run for a long score? "I'm proud," says Jake, who's due to start for the Wildcats this weekend. "At his age, he's so much faster than I was. He's a real running back. He's just balling out right now, and it's fun. I'm proud of him."
CDO place kicker Tilghman Harvey booms every kickoff, and nails his three field goal attempts. One more weapon in the Dorado arsenal.
Tyler D'Amore, Ironwood Ridge's three-year starter at quarterback, eludes the CDO rush, runs left, then throws on the run to an open receiver. That's hard to do, run left and throw with your right arm, but D'Amore's done this before. His leadership is apparent.
"Our house!" the Ironwood kids yell. Yet CDO is settling in, and first-time Dorado starting quarterback Jason McBrayer demonstrates leadership of his own. CDO wins, 26-13. "Undefeated!" the CDO side calls. Yes, but it's still 1-0.
"All 49 of us got a victory tonight," CDO Coach Dustin Peace tells his team afterward. "We're going to be pretty lethal when we put it all together." He's right. Ironwood's going to be just fine, too.
The 40-minute wait to leave the parking lot tells you why people park on the roadside. But it's been worth it. Let's do it again next year, Oro Valley, at CDO's house. Add in a parade, and a big community tailgate party, and you've got a flat-out celebration.