Tyler D'Amore still feels the sting of last season's 14-10, last-second loss to Scottsdale Desert Mountain in the 5A football playoffs.
"That's why I worked all off-season," said senior quarterback D'Amore, a three-year starter who wants to lead his final Nighthawk squad deeper into the 2010 playoffs.
"That was a tough loss," agreed Nighthawk center Tanner Todd, another three-year starter.
"We were 40 seconds from playoff tickets after we were 1-4," second-year coach Matt Johnson said. Indeed, the Nighthawks won five of their last six games, one by forfeit, to finish 6-5 and turn around what began as a difficult season.
"Transition is always tough," Johnson said of his first campaign at the Ridge helm. This season, "the kids definitely understand who I am and what I expect." His expectations? "Always compete. Work extremely hard. Put in a lot of hours. Be great students. Always show class."
D'Amore, 6-1 and 185 pounds, likes this year's team, which hosts defending state champion Canyon Del Oro at 7 p.m. Friday.
"It's the intensity, and the way we worked in the off-season," D'Amore said. "We have the mindset, the mindset to get to the state championship."
D'Amore leads with "positive encouragement. Be positive with the young players. You can't be negative. If we score a touchdown off a pass, the first people you thank is the offensive line."
D'Amore believes he's matured "in more understanding of the game." He credits the coaching staff.
"Just as much as we're going to rely on his arm, we're going to rely on his leadership and his intelligence for us to reach our goals," Johnson said of D'Amore. "He's a special kid on and off the field."
There are others, too, among them wide receiver Trevor Wesley, linebacker and running back Gabe Campa, Todd and running back and safety Mitch Fischer.
Ironwood Ridge is more experienced than it was a season ago. "Last year, we were young," Johnson said. The Nighthawks are quicker. "Like most Tucson teams, we don't have a lot of depth," he said. "A lot of kids go both ways. We need to stay injury-free if we're really going to be successful."
The 'Hawks have "really worked hard since January preparing for this season," with the requisite time in the weight room, improving speed and playing other sports. Johnson's numbers are "pretty darned solid," with 140 players through the program.
"Success is pretty simple," Johnson said. "We make it a habit to always improve everything we do. If we keep that mentality, we'll be OK."
The schedule is "extremely rigorous," with six playoff teams along the way. It's not just Canyon Del Oro; Salpointe Catholic, Sunnyside and others await. "Every week, we face a big-time program," Johnson said. "It certainly makes us better come playoff time."
Ironwood Ridge is "ready" and "very excited" for CDO this Friday night, D'Amore said. "They're on the throne right now, on top." He and CDO star Ka'Deem Carey are good friends, having known each other for years. "We're competitors. Both of us hate to lose."
While Carey has committed to play at Arizona, D'Amore has college football aspirations of his own. But that's not his immediate focus.
"We've got the talent," D'Amore said. "We're playing to get there in December."
Region: 5A-1 Southern
Coach: Matt Johnson
6-5 a season ago
Aug. 27 Canyon Del Oro
Sept. 3 at Mesa Skyline
Sept. 10 Laveen Cesar Chavez
Sept. 16 at Cienega
Sept. 24 at Salpointe Catholic
Oct. 1 Rincon/University
Oct. 8 at Tucson
Oct. 15 at Sierra Vista Buena
Oct. 22 Sunnyside
Nov. 5 Mountain View
Todd has looked long to this year
Tanner Todd, the 6-2, 265-pound Ironwood Ridge center, has thought about his senior football season for a long time.
"I've been looking forward to this since freshman year," Todd said during a hot practice night last week. "I can't wait for that first game."
It comes Friday, when the Nighthawks host defending state champion Canyon Del Oro in a 7 p.m. kickoff.
Todd has been snapping the ball to his friend, quarterback Tyler D'Amore, for two full varsity seasons. To keep sharp, Todd snaps between 100 and 200 footballs a night.
A season ago, it was "a big change when we got a new coach," Todd said. "It's paying off." Matt Johnson is "a great coach. He's teaching me to read, to make calls."
As a senior leader, Todd commits to "show dedication, to come to every practice, to coach and help out the younger kids, to inspire kids to get stronger, and to give 100 percent on every play.
"Whenever you mess up, you've got to blame yourself for it, and do it better the next time," Todd said.
The Nighthawks are "all working hard," Todd said. "It's really helping us. We want to win state. Every kid says they're going to win state. You have to have that mentality."
Todd wants to play football in college. But first, there's a high school senior season to play.