Sean Watkins has led the Ironwood Ridge High School girls soccer program to the brink of history in each of the last four years.
Watkins, now in his 12th season with the team, has coached the Nighthawks to the 5A semifinals in four straight postseasons, but has yet to take the team to its first state title match.
The team looked destined to do so last winter after earning the top seed in the 16-team 5A playoffs after a 18-3-2 regular season. That squad, led by do-it-all seniors like Isabella Santavicca, Grace Reinholz, Alyssa Kopach, Clare Merrigan, Lydia Pedroza and Twyla Himmel, met its demise in the semifinal round, falling to fifth-seeded Campo Verde, 1-0.
Fast-forward nine months and the Nighthawks are back in action featuring a fresh-faced team that is heavy on inexperienced yet talented players.
Watkins calls this year’s team, which is tasked with replacing 13 seniors, a total departure from the rosters he’s had at his disposal over the last three seasons.
“We’re pretty balanced with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors this year,” he said. “So it’s just a matter of whether some of the juniors can fill some of the big shoes to fill from the seniors last year.
The longtime Nighthawks coach called the team’s deep playoff runs over the past four years a point of pride, showing how futile a state championship drive can be.
“That can be considered consistently disappointing or consistently fantastic, depending on how you look at it,” Watkins said. “But, a couple of those years, we lost in [penalty kicks] and all four years we were right there trying to get over the hump to potentially win a state title but didn’t quite get it done.”
Watkins expects future Western Oregon University forward Lux Butler to play a key role in the team’s possession-oriented attack.
Butler shares that assessment, having learned a lot from the Nighthawks past playoff runs, with an eye toward turning the narrative in 2020.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to be on the team for three of the four semifinal appearances and every year it’s been a different experience because they’ve been very different teams every time,” she said. “But it’s always been a learning experience for us.”
Watkins expects this year’s squad to take its lumps early in the year, which began at the Brandon Bean Soccer Tournament Monday, Dec. 2.
The Nighthawks got off to a rough start at the invitational, first beating Vista Grande, 3-0, before tying Sahuaro in a scoreless game and losing to Tucson High, 1-0.
“The good thing is we have a really steep learning curve this year,” Watkins said. “We improved by small margins last year, because we started really well, and we improved by small margins throughout the year.”
Jeffers said this year’s team has the right mixture of youthful enthusiasm and upperclassmen experience to contend in a stacked 5A Southern region.
“I think that we have a lot of younger girls on the team this year so there’s a lot of room for growth and hopefully we can see the semifinals again this season,” Jeffers said.
Above all, Watkins expects this year’s team to continue the team’s lofty on-pitch standards, maintaining the aura of success that’s been built over the past decade.
He’s confident the Nighthawks will fly this year, despite their lack of veteran leadership, as the team’s elders have learned the ropes from those that preceded them in the program.
Since the Brandon Bean tournament, the Nighthawks have dropped their first two games of the season, losing again to Tucson High, 1-0, on Dec. 10. Ironwood Ridge played Catalina Foothills last Monday, Dec. 16, and lost that game, 1-0, in overtime.
Contributions to this story were made by Logan Burtch-Buus.