An early deficit and second half miscues were too much for Ironwood Ridge to overcome in a 42-26 loss to Queen Creek in the second round of the 5A state football playoffs.
Queen Creek jumped out to an early 14-0 lead and although the Nighthawks would climb back into the game, their margin for error was reduced.
“We knew we would have to make some adjustments, they did a great jog,” said Ironwood Ridge Head Coach Matt Johnson. “Out kids responded extremely well. I am super proud of our kids.”
The loss ended the season for the Nighthawks who finished the season 9-3, their third 9-win season in a row under Johnson. They entered the postseason a biT shorthanded missing their leading rusher and a key two-way performer, but Johnson was not making any excuses for his team who had their opportunities
“The injuries hurt, but I think we had enough talent to win,” Johnson said. “It is just a couple plays, a couple bounces of the ball, a couple of things that we did and that is just life. All you can ask for out of a high school experience is a bond and a shared effort and these kids gave us that.”
Queen Creek running back Jace Koester scored two early touchdowns to put the Bulldogs up 14-0, but the Nighthawks quickly got back into the game. Nick Brahler got Ironwood Ridge on the board with a six-yard run and on the very next possession Cole Gerken connected with Garrett Billings on a 58-yard touchdown. Thanks to a missed extra point after the first score, Ironwood Ridge trailed 14-13.
Gerken had a good night passing connecting on 17-of-25 passes for 215 yards and the one score.
Queen Creek came right back thanks to a long kickoff return that gave them the ball at midfield. Taking advantage of a personal foul that nullified a sack, the Bulldogs kept the drive alive with a third down conversion then went to the ground, using six straight runs, four by Koester to get down the Nighthawks one yard line. With the defense keying in on Koester, the Bulldogs went to fullback Steven Vindiola who fought through the line for the score.
A 41-yard completion to Billings gave the Nighthawks the ball at the Bulldog 10 and three plays and a pass interference penalty later Brahler found the end zone with just 49.4 second left in the first half.
Brahler, who has carried the load after the injury to Soma Helu, carried 21 times for 144 yards.
The second half saw Queen Creek take advantage of some uncharacteristic miscues. On the first possession of the second half the Nighthawks fumbled at their own 34 and the Bulldogs pounced. Feeding Koester three straight times the powerful running back had back-to-back runs of 19 and 10, then scored on a five-yard run.
Koester was a workhorse, carrying 26 times for 200 yards.
“That’s the point of high school football, they come out here and give it their best effort, they come out here as a family and if they make a mistake they heal as a family,” Johnson said.
Ironwood Ridge avoided disaster on the next possession. After being forced to punt, the Nighthawk attempted a roll-out rugby kick that was blocked and recovered at the Nighthawk 21-yard line. However, two plays later the Bulldogs gave the ball right back on a fumble.
The Nighthawks made the most of that opportunity. They went on a 14-play, 90-yard drive and got within two when Gerken called his own number and scored from 4 yards out. The 2-point conversion attempt failed and the Bulldogs held onto a 28-26 lead.
Motivated by Ironwood Ridge’s long drive, the Bulldogs went on one of their own. Wanting to run down the game clock, the Bulldogs used a 15-play drive, running almost 5:00 off the clock and capping the drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass.
On third and 31 Bulldog quarterback Devin Larsen avoided the rush, kept the play alive with his feet, then fired a pass to Ian Woods inside the 20. Woods made three Nighthawk defenders miss and scooted into the end zone.
A second turnover sealed the Nighthawks’ fate. With 4:40 left in the game, Gerken dropped back to pass and faced a huge pass rush. He attempted to fight off the attempted sack, but had the ball knocked away.
The Bulldogs recovered at the IRHS 9-yard line and took nearly 2:30 off the clock, while running just four plays and utilizing two penalties. Larsen’s one yard sneak on fourth down put the Bulldogs up by 16 with just 1:56 to play.
Lacking timeouts, the Nighthawks attempted a final drive. They got to midfield but a final turnover essentially ended the game.
As is his custom, Johnson briefly addressed the team before having all his seniors line up and accept hugs and well wishes from the rest of the team and coaches.
“This is a real special group, a lot love for each other,” Johnson said.
Although Marana lost to No. 2 Williams Field 41-14, the Tigers are still celebrating their best season in a quarter century.
Marana qualified for the postseason for the first time in almost a decade and won a playoff game for the first time since the early 1980’s. Along the way the team won their first regional title since the ’70s and hosted their first playoff game ever.
The loss was the team’s first since August 26 snapping a 9-game winning streak. The Tigers’ 3-loses were to the top-three ranked teams in the 5A Division.
An early turnover led to Williams Field’s first touchdown and it was 14-0 midway through the opening quarter.
Marana finally put together a long drive, but a fumble at the Williams Field 25-yard line halted their momentum.
After Marana scored to cut the lead in half, Williams Field got the 7 points right back thanks to a 65-yard touchdown run by Josh Alexander.
The teams traded turnovers, with Marana actually picking off a pair of passes, but neither team capitalized.
Williams Field made it 24-7 when Alabama-bound kicker Brandon Ruiz booted a 51-yard field goal. He added a 58-yarder late in the fourth quarter.
The teams traded turnovers again, and after a Marana interception a head injury to Marana’s Tariq Jordan delayed the game by 35 minutes as an ambulance was called. In a show of sportsmanship, the two teams took knees side by side until Jordan was taken to the hospital. He was released the next day and expected to make a full recovery.
The Tigers found the end zone late in the fourth quarter after the game was no longer in doubt.
The Tigers’ quarterback duo of Connor Leavens and Trenton Bourguet had up and down games. The pair combined for 295 yards. 148 for Leavens and 147 for Bourguet, but also had three interceptions between them.
Wide receiver B.J. McDaniel had 145 yards on 10 catches, but the Tigers struggled to run the ball, gaining just 91 yards on a combined 33 carries.