A group of high school students wearing matching navy blue shirts and shorts glide across the stained hardwood on a Thursday afternoon.
The half-dozen or so athletes, who make up the backbone of Ironwood Ridge High School’s girls volleyball squad, are ready for the grueling season that lies ahead.
The Nighthawks have made the state playoffs in each of coach Bill Lang’s 17 varsity seasons, including capturing their region’s championship in 12 of the past 15 campaigns.
A major reason for this steadfast success is Lang’s back-to-basics coaching style, which places an emphasis on routines and regimens. That ideology spreads to the very clothing varsity players wear during their practices, which has evolved from a classic cotton top to a more modern, form-fitting piece that features sweat-wicking technology.
The impetus Lang puts on his athletes’ academics hasn’t wavered in nearly two decades, with the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Team Academic Award for the 17th straight year.
The award, which was given out to four high school volleyball programs in Southern Arizona this year, stems from Lang’s steadfast commitment to his player’s success, both on the court and in the classroom.
The Nighthawks’ 2018 campaign was successful by just about any measure, going 22-16, with an unblemished 10-0 mark against regional foes. This year’s schedule will test Lang’s roster, with matches against perennial powers like Scottsdale Horizon High School, who the Nighthawks face at home in their season opener at 6 p.m. Sept. 3. After that, three straight road matches, against Notre Dame Prep, Mountain View and Tucson High School.
For Lang, the key to a successful season is to set a high bar during offseason workouts, so players come back in good shape, ready to tackle whatever the season can throw their way.
“We have really high expectations,” he said. “As a school in a community, there’s really high expectations here at Ironwood Ridge, from the staff, the parents, the community,” Lang said. “And when the players buy into those expectations, then you have something special here, year in, year out.”
That program-wide embrace of grinding it out is embraced by team captains Hannah Ford and Andrea Vigil. The two seniors provided a lot of heft to the Nighthawks attack in 2018, with Vigil smacking 218 kills and 20 blocks, while also finishing the year with 244 digs.
Ford finished her junior season with 32 digs, 19 kills and 9 service aces, with the 5 foot 9 inch, rising senior filling a key cog in Lang’s attack, at the opposite hitter and outside hitter positions.
Ford believes the Nighthawks can reach new levels of success this fall, with a team of experienced players that have bought in to Lang’s system wholeheartedly.
“I think that this year we just have a group of girls that are going to come in and work hard in the gym every day,” Ford said. “I’m really excited to see how everyone comes in and grinds, because I think if we can come in and work hard, we can get really great stuff done this season.”
Vigil said the larger-than-life expectations that come with playing volleyball at Ironwood Ridge are what inspire them to work so hard during the offseason.
The senior outside hitter believes that those expectations shape the team’s vision during the summer months, allowing them to enter the regular season focused and hungry for success.
“I think the expectations that the coaches and the players have for each other is huge,” Vigil said. “That plays a huge part because I think, at least for us and our program, one thing we really pride ourselves on is our commitment. We say commitment, teamwork, pride and it’s our family.”
Lang, who has a career record of 459-228 at IRHS, has yet to win a state championship, finishing as the state runner-up twice, in 2004 and 2014.
Ford said getting Lang that elusive title is a key motivating factor going into the 2019 season, with a roster full of talent that can contend with anyone in the state.
“We’ve had a lot of success in years past, but we’ve never gotten that state title,” Ford said.” I think knowing that helps motivate us, knowing that if that’s going to be our goal this season. It’s really important for us to all understand that we have the same motivations, the same goals, and that we are all working towards the same thing.”