Julia Mohan

Julia Mohan of Ironwood Ridge High School dribbles past a host of Rincon/University High School defenders during the Nighthawks 2-0 win on Tuesday, Dec. 18. 

Katie Jeffers fought through past a Rincon/University defender a few yards from the Rangers goal, spearing a bouncing ball into the back of the oversized white goal to her right.

The junior forward from Ironwood Ridge responded to her success with a subdued fist pump before greeting her navy blue-clad teammates in a mild celebration.

Her triumph in the sixth minute of the Nighthawks match against the Rangers was a sign of things to come, with the home side blanking their opponents, 2-0, to improve to 8-0-2 for the season.

The Nighthawks, under 12th year coach Sean Watkins, have dominated their competition this season, with ties against the Rangers on Nov. 26 and Buena on Nov. 27 being their only demerit to this point of the year.

The key to the team’s success this year dates back to their last loss, which came in the 5A semifinals against eventual state champion, Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School, Feb. 8.

That 3-2 defeat taught this year’s seniors, like co-captains Isabella Santavicca and Gracie Reinholtz, the importance of playing their hardest for the entirety of every 80-minute match.

“The key for us this year is being able to fight for our wins,” Santavicca said. “Not just going in being able to dominate teams, but actually fighting for all of our goals and all of our plays.”

Jeffers, who’s scored three goals and tallied two assists in eight matches for the Nighthawks so far this year, said the team’s gutsy win over the Rangers Tuesday spoke to their steadfast confidence in all aspects of the game. 

“We really sucked it up when we needed to, and we came out strong at the beginning of the game, and we got those goals in quickly, and secured the win,” Jeffers said.

Watkins praised the experience that his players have, like Santavicca and Jeffers, saying their collective knowledge allows the team to thrive when the going gets tough.

“We've got a lot of experience and then with Katie Jeffers, she's back in form again and she's one of the best forwards in the state right now and really difficult to deal with, causing a lot of problems,” Watkins said. 

Reinholtz, who has two goals and an assist to her name this year, believes the team’s success this season stems from their deep playoff runs over the last three years.  The Nighthawks have reached the state semifinals in each of the last three seasons, losing each time.

The senior forward believes this season will be different, however, with a steadfast group of talented juniors and seniors that are ready for the task.

“We’ve actually gone to either the quarterfinals or semifinals all three years of my high school career,” Reinholtz said. “This is our season; fourth time’s a charm. We have 15 seniors on the roster, so this is our year.”

Jeffers believes the team’s past playoff losses have fueled this year’s squad, giving them a target to shoot for, which is to win the school’s first girls soccer title.

“I think last year gave us a taste of what it's like to get really far,” Jeffers said. “I think this year we're going to come out really strong and make it further.”

For Watkins, the team’s consistency is a calling card that traces back to the hours spent during the offseason, doing conditioning drills and honing their on-pitch camaraderie. 

“I think this is my 194th win and this is my 12th season, and it's been a process of developing a culture here and now the culture is how we train, how we perform, what the expectations are and now it's self-perpetuating,” Watkins said. “It's really nice that the girls buy in. They see the classes that came before them, and they want to top that class. Each class wants to be the legacy team.”

Read the full story in next Wednesday’s Explorer and Marana News.

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