Matt Johnson exhaled three-and-a-half hours of distress as he addressed four dozen teenagers fresh off an overtime thrill ride.
The longtime Ironwood Ridge High School football coach glanced up at the red-colored bulbs in the north end zone, where the only number that matters to coaches and players alike shined back—48-41.
The 210-minute saga that led to that outsized final score wandered through a 20-7 lead for the 11th-seeded visitors from Glendale’s Apollo High School, with two overtimes, a debilitating 85-yard game-tying fumble return touchdown and two overtimes of pulse-pounding action.
It was a contest that words hardly describe, and Johnson chose to do so with an analogy that likely flew over his teenaged players’ heads, but hit the mark nonetheless.
Johnson compared the single-elimination state tournament to the classic 1985 science fiction flick, “Mad Max Thunderdome,” with its rather simplistic plot—two gladiators enter, one leaves.
The Nighthawks, thanks to a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort on their second overtime drive, found a way to leave as victors, guaranteeing another game in Friday’s state semifinals.
Johnson was all smiles afterwards when describing his team’s thrilling come-from-behind win, praising his team for weathering a brutal first half to come out victorious.
“Well they had adversity, we had adversity and we got lucky on some plays,” Johnson said. “We got silly sometimes, had some penalties that I wish we could take back. I don’t know if it’ll be enough for us to advance. But we did a good job this week.”
A team triumphs
Senior leaders Heath Beemiller and Nick Brahler, who combined to score all seven of the team’s touchdowns, commended Apollo on the nightlong effort.
“Apollo was a great team,” Beemiller said. “They’re a lot better than an 11 seed. They’re a hell of a team. I mean, to win, especially in this fashion means a lot, especially to come back from trailing at halftime and pull this one out. It means a lot to this team, to have some momentum for the next game to come.”
Beemiller became a hero in a matter of plays for his team when he tossed an impeccable 73-yard touchdown pass to Brahler to give Ironwood Ridge a 34-27 lead with just over two minutes left.
The touchdown was redemptive to the quarterback, who lost control of a snap out of the shotgun on plays earlier, with the ball bounding right into the hands of an Apollo defender, who scooped it and dashed 85 yards the other way to tie the game at 28.
Beemiller never outwardly showed signs of distress after the turnover, firing up teammates on the sidelines before Apollo’s ensuing kickoff.
The senior gunslinger said the mistake and subsequent triumph are all part of what make playoff football great, and that he never doubted his team’s chances.
“It just goes to show — you’re driving, you’re about to score to make it a two-score game and put the game away, and a mistake happens like that and changes the whole outcome,” Beemiller said. “You’ve just got to keep your head up, and just let your teammates do their job, like we did on the next play. I had all the faith in my offensive line to make their blocks; and in my receivers in keeping theirs, and in Nick to do what he does and drive down the field and score.”
Johnson said Beemiller’s resounding response to his turnover shows the heart of the senior quarterback, and the resiliency of the team as a whole.
“It’s why you play high school sports, is for stuff like that,” Johnson said. “As a family, you have those moments of joy and you have those moments of sadness, and you learn about life. So, it’s a great win.”
Give me Liberty or…
The sixth-seeded Nighthawks will travel to Phoenix this Friday to play Liberty High School at 7 p.m. in the state quarterfinals.
Liberty, the third seed in the Division 5A tournament, rolled over Campo Verde in last Friday’s first round 28-7 win, and presents another challenge for Johnson and company.
Johnson knows his team will have to play a better game top to bottom to have a chance, but believes his guys have a chance no matter what.
“We’ve just got to keep cleaning up our mistakes, that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “The work that these guys put in tonight, they have a lot of resilience, they have heart. But they have a way of digging ourselves out and competing, so that’s their greatest quality.”
Brahler, who finished with two rushing and receiving touchdowns against Apollo, has a similar trust in his gridiron brethren.
“Each week we have to respect our opponent and do our jobs,” Brahler said. “Everybody on our team has to their job, and don’t do other’s jobs. So, we’re ready to roll.”