There’s a new man in charge of the Ironwood Ridge football team for the first time in a decade, bringing a new ethos to the Nighthawks’ pigskin program. 

James Hardy, Jr., who previously served as an assistant coach at intra-district rival Canyon del Oro, was chosen as the Nighthawks’ newest coach in March. 

Hardy previously coached at the high school and junior college level in California for 13 years, and spent his first three months on the job instilling the virtues of hard work to his players. 

The California native spent much of the team’s first summer workout on Monday, June 3 guiding 40-plus players through a series of grueling conditioning drills. 

The drills serve an intrinsic purpose, as Hardy knows his players will have to be in peak physical form to contend for a state title this fall. 

Hardy wants to one-up last year’s 6-5 record, which included nail-biting losses to Millennium, Campo Verde and Marana. Doing so will take a team-wide embrace of the sport’s fundamental elements, which include relentless energy and dedication. 

Hardy is impressed by what he saw from his players during the team’s spring workouts, with young men showing their mettle during the pad-less practices. 

“I’ve got a group of boys that definitely want to work hard,” Hardy said. “It was really good to see the numbers that turned out for those three or four works of spring ball. So, I’m really pleased with the turnout and I’m excited to see where we go from here.” 

Hardy is tasked with picking up where former coach Matt Johnson left off. Johnson helmed the program for 10 years before taking over at neighboring Mountain View High School.

Hardy will get the chance to do just that on Friday, Aug. 23, when Johnson’s Lions squad visit Ironwood Ridge for the season opener. 

Hardy is focused on spending the next 10 weeks making sure the Nighthawks are well-versed on his staff’s alterations to the schemes his predecessor installed during his time at the school. 

He’s not trying to tear down what Johnson built, but rather finds himself focused on trying to take what the former coach built and take it to the next level. 

“Coach Johnson obviously did a great job,” Hardy said. “The years he put in here, he’s definitely established a foundation of commitment and excellence. He set the foundation, I’m not going to sit here and take credit. What you see here, it’s a credit to what coach Johnson’s established. And I’m just looking to continue that tradition and put my spin on the Ironwood Ridge program.” 

Hardy’s spin has captivated seniors, like two-way star Octavio Audry-Cobos and cornerback Cameron Drescher. 

Audry-Cobos, who accumulated 1,536 yards offensively with 16 touchdowns as a junior, is excited by what Hardy’s accomplished so far. 

“What excites me the most is that we’ll be able to learn under someone else, instead of hearing the same thing over and over again,” Audry-Cobos said. “We get to learn a new scheme and everything before we finish playing high school football.” 

Audry-Cobos, who figures to see a lot of time on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball this fall, said playing both ways will help his development going forward. 

“I have a lot more experience now, because I mostly played defensive during my sophomore year and on offense last year,” Audry-Cobos said. “So, now I can see how the quarterback can see the game, which can help me on the defensive side. And when I’m playing offense, I can see what a linebacker is going to do when I’m running certain routes or anything like that.” 

Drescher, who finished his junior season with 61 tackles, 7 pass deflections and 1.5 tackles for loss, said this year’s team is closer than any he’s been a part of. 

The senior defensive back attributed much of that camaraderie to the work that Hardy and his staff have put in during their first few months at Ironwood Ridge. 

“In my opinion, I think the bond we have together is truly special,” Drescher said. “I’ve been on varsity the last two years on defense and I haven’t had this kind of bond with my teammates that I have this year. I think it’s special.”

That bond will be tested during the sizzling months of June, July and August, but will be on full display come 7 p.m. on Aug. 23. 

Drescher is focused on those who will suit up for the Lions on that fateful Friday, shirking the outside distractions that come with playing a former coach. 

“Playing Mountain View is always fun,” he said. “They’ve kind of become our rival. It’s going to be fun because there’s a lot of people that I know from the past over there that are going to be at the game. That whole atmosphere, honestly, is going to be a lot of fun.” 

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