The course of last Friday’s season-opening football contest between Ironwood Ridge and Mountain View high schools shifted on a thunderous tackle by senior Brandon Barrios.
Barrios finished the game with a team-high 135 rushing yards, but made his biggest play of the night while on defense in the shadows of the Nighthawks end zone during the second quarter.
It was a great read on a fourth-and-goal run call by former Ironwood Ridge and current Lions coach Matt Johnson. Barrios blew up that play with a tackle few sporting navy blue and silver will forget anytime soon.
Barrios’ show-stopping tackle allowed the Nighthawks, who were up 7-0 at the time, to regain possession. That change of hands resulted in quarterback Fabien Figueroa’s first of two passing touchdowns.
Barrios described his big hit as a piece of fait accompli, reading Mountain View back Varney Larson’s eyes and bringing the talented senior down in the backfield.
“I think that gave us all the momentum, because forth and one, there's nothing you can ask for besides a nice turnover and give it right back to our offense,” Barrios said.
The remaining 32 minutes of action after Barrios’ defensive heroics followed a script typical of a defensive slugfest, with each offensive unit struggling to gain any ground.
What could be called the second-biggest play of the night happened on the Nighthawks’ ensuing possession.
That drive was capped off by a dazzling display of athleticism from Figueroa, who shirked a Mountain View defender to heave a spiral some 20 yards downfield, into the waiting arms of sophomore wideout Hudson Thompson.
Thompson took over from there, shaking loose from a Lion defender of his own before racing to paydirt to give the Nighthawks a commanding 14-0 advantage with just over four minutes left in the quarter.
Figueroa called the touchdown pass a turning point for the team’s offense, which had been stifled up to that point by Johnson’s swarming defense.
“That play meant a lot to us as an offense,” Figueroa said. “I mean, obviously that play was not how we drew it up. So, people love it. I mean, the fans, we love it. And I mean, it just meant a lot that we turned something bad into a positive play.”
Figueroa would go on to hit fellow senior Octavio Audry-Cobos for his second and final score with just over 19 seconds to play in the first half, giving the team a 21-0 edge at the break.
Figueroa said the team’s solid performance against Johnson and the Lions spoke to coach James Hardy Jr’s hard work and steadfast belief in the team during the summer.
“I just am proud of my team,” he said. “I'm proud because I know there's a lot of adversity and there's a lot of things leading up to this game. A lot of doubts in the newspaper and everything, and I'm just glad that my team proved that we don't need coach Johnson.”
Hardy’s focus postgame was transfixed on the things that his players did well and those that his staff will need to tweak with Millennium High School up next.
The key for Hardy is to get the team’s players in good position so the Nighthawks can have a shot at beating Millennium High School in Goodyear on Friday night.
“They came out and responded,” Hardy said. “I asked them to play four quarter football, and they played four quarter football. That's all I can ask. We had our ups and downs and things like that, but they stayed consistent throughout the game and we were victorious.”
Hardy is excited to see where the Nighthawks go on both sides of the ball, with Friday’s opener serving as a jolt of momentum heading into the team’s contest against the Tigers.
“The highlight is getting the win for those seniors, for those juniors, for those kids that went through that transition phase when Coach Johnson left,” Hardy said. “I told them I wanted this game for them. Once again, they're the cornerstone to this program and I wanted to get this win for them, and they came out victorious.”
For Johnson, last week’s opener proves how far his team has to go to get back to the playoffs, a year after the Lions missed out on the postseason.
The silver lining for the first-year Lions coach is the way his team fought in the game’s second half, with junior quarterback Hayden Parson scoring the team’s lone touchdown on a one-yard rush in the game’s fourth quarter.
Johnson believes his players will be better suited for their efforts in the season opener, taking what they learned into account for this week’s contest with Higley High School in Gilbert on Friday night.
“I thought we recovered really well. I mean the second half we came out and we did a lot of good stuff,” Johnson said. “I really believe the first half of the schedule's really hard. These guys have a ton of potential. They got a good attitude if they just stick with it we should have great things happen. It's just going to take some time as we get better every week.”
For one night at least, the new boss at Ironwood Ridge got the better of his predecessor, earning him the game ball.
“I’m happy with the win, and I’m happy to get my first win, especially with the magnitude of this game,” Hardy said. “It’s been the talk of the town, and I’m really about getting this win no matter what, but we still have work to do. We still have to clean up some things, improve on some things, offensively and defensively. We’ve got to get back tomorrow and we’ve got to get back to work.”