The Ironwood Ridge High School Nighthawks celebrated winning a section championship in modest fashion Thursday night. The girls soccer squad clinched the title in a 4-0 drumming of the Marana Tigers, capping off an unblemished 5-0 record against 5A Southern region foes.
The team celebrated with the usual back-slaps and high-fives that have followed all of the team’s 18 regular season victories.
The reason for their toned-back celebration was simple, as longtime coach Sean Watkins described during his postgame comments.
“This was kind of a business game,” he said. “We just wanted to get through this and get into state without the injuries or cards, and we did, which was great.”
The Nighthawks finish the regular season at 18-3-2, while the Tigers finish with an equally-impressive 11-5 mark.
Dan Tarquin, who’s coached the Tigers to six-straight state playoff appearances, believes his team has done enough to warrant another postseason appearance.
“We’ve been working all season on getting to the playoffs,” he said. “So, the fact that our last two games didn’t turn out the way we wanted to doesn’t distract from our goal, which was getting to the playoffs.”
Tarquin added he’s hoping to have a home game, and hopefully secure the Tigers’ first playoff win since 2008.
The tone of Thursday’s clash was set midway through the first half, when Ironwood Ridge seniors Alyssa Kopach and Gracie Reinholtz found the back of the net.
The team continued its goal-scoring bonanza in the latter half, with senior forward Isabella Santavicca and sophomore Julia Mohan finding paydirt.
Both Reinholtz and Mohan know what awaits them, with the first round of the playoffs kicking off Saturday, Feb. 9. The former believes the Nighthawks are ready for whoever their first postseason foe may be, given their high level of play of-late.
“I think that no matter what our seed, we’re just going to have to play hard, because either way we’re going to face hard teams,” Reinholtz said. “But [getting a top-four seed in the playoffs] definitely helps, because we’re going to be able to play home a lot and have our fans support us, and then also we might not have to face some of the hardest teams until later on in the tournament.”
Watkins knows how tough it is to find success in the single-elimination tournament, coming up just short a year ago.
That squad made it to the semifinal round, before falling to Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School, 3-2.
The key to success in the 16-team tournament is maintaining and perfecting the little aspects of the game that make a team successful during the grind of the regular season.
Watkins believes his team is ready to do just that, given their success in the state playoffs of-late, reaching the state semifinal round in three of the past four years.
The longtime Nighthawks coach knows that his team has the right mix of confidence and composure to win in the playoffs, and that the opposing side will have a tough time knocking them off in a do-or-die environment.
“The big thing for us though is that they play us,” Watkins said. “And that’s the message that I send out to the girls all the time is, ‘You’re Ironwood Ridge, and they have to play you.’ They’re going to have to adapt to what you do on the field.”
The key to success for Tarquin’s side is a bit different, with a mix of inexperienced players and stalwart seniors on his roster. The hodgepodge collective is seeking the team’s first playoff win since 2008, which is something their coach believes is possible.
“I think we have three juniors and only two or three sophomores,” Tarquin said. “So, it’s the mentoring that the older girls have done for the younger girls. I mean, I start two freshmen. And that’s because the older girls have taught them good habits and gotten them pointed in the right direction.”
Tarquin believes his team will be prepared for their first-round opponent, regardless of who they are.
His confidence stems from the squad’s steady play for most of the season, posting a 3-2 mark in an ultra-competitive section.
“We don’t care who we play,” Tarquin said. “We’re going to have our normal practices and who we play is not that important to us. But we’re not going to rely on having to be able to prepare for a specific opponent. We just want to get in and play hard and get a win.”
The key to success in the single-elimination postseason, according to Mohan, is to have players that have been there before.
Mohan’s side has that part covered, with 14 seniors on their roster, all of whom have experienced the gut-wrenching stress that’s a given this time of year.
“Our team is older than most of the ones we play,” Mohan said. “And I really think our success has a lot to do with us as a team just being connected through the midfield, through every position and part of the field.”
Watkins is excited to watch his experienced roster enter the most important part of the season, knowing what each of his players are capable of when it matters most.
“I started coaching a large group of my players when they were 11-year-old in club soccer,” Watkins said. “There’s a bond—sometimes positive, sometimes negative—but there’s a bond, and there’s a general trust, and the fact that they know that I care about them, and I know that they care about me and our team.”
Ironwood Ridge seniors, like Mohan and Reinholtz have enjoyed their time playing for Watkins, with Mohan describing playing for the Nighthawks as a dream come true.
“I think no matter how the season ends, I know every team is hoping to do well in the playoffs,” Mohan said. “But no matter what, we just enjoyed playing the game. It wasn’t always about the wins. We were happy to have them, but I was just glad to be able to play with such awesome people.”