New Ironwood Ridge head football coach Matt Johnson has a great deal of respect for his team's past.

"It's really hard to follow Coach (Gary) Minor – he's an Ironwood legend, he was so successful here," said Johnson.

"But on the other hand, I've inherited a great program, a really strong program."

Building on last year's 10-3 season (the most wins in Nighthawk history), while forging a new future for Ironwood Ridge is something that both the new coach and his players will strive for this year.

According to the coach, it will come down to one thing – hard work.

So far, the Nighthawk players seem to agree.

"They've worked extremely hard and are very dedicated," said Johnson. "We've had 30 workouts at 6 a.m. this summer and the attendance has been outstanding."

The Nighthawks have participated in a passing league. "We've done the weight room, and they've done everything I could ask of them with a positive attitude," he added. "We've had great senior leadership, the kids have supported me and really bought in."

That kind of cohesion will be crucial for the Nighthawks this season – the team will replace 16 starters from 2008's state semifinal squad. If that wasn't enough, Ironwood Ridge's schedule is unfriendly at best.

"It's a really rigorous schedule," said Johnson. "There are six or seven team that were in last year's playoffs, four or five had at least eight wins."

Johnson thinks the Nighthawks can overcome any challenge.

"We're going to go in and compete and play our best — when you give great effort, good things happen," he said.

That effort will come from veterans like junior quarterback Tyler D'Amore, senior running back Adrian Brahler, senior cornerback Logan Bailey, and junior offensive / defensive lineman Tanner Todd — just a few of the players Johnson points to as cornerstones, both in leadership and skills.

While 2008 standout linebacker / running back Jake Fischer has left to play for the University of Arizona, his younger brother, sophomore Mitchell Fischer, returns after a season on varsity.

"Mitch Fischer is a great guy, he's a hard worker, he has an absolutely great attitude," said Johnson.

"(Mitch is) a DB/tailback type — he's gonna be his own Fischer, and that's a compliment."

While one of the most glaring holes was left by the graduation of team-leading wide receiver Scott Campbell (now playing at Pima Community College), the coach believes his team will be able to weather the loss.

"I think we've got some real talented receivers than can step up and make opponents respect our passing game," said Johnson. "(Junior) Trevor Wesley is one of those guys and so is (senior) Jake Allen."

"They really improved week to week through the summer – we won't be one-dimensional," he added.

The improvement of Allen and Wesley, as well as that of the Nighthawks as a whole, won't take long to be tested. Ironwood Ridge is scheduled to open the season in an all-Oro Valley showdown against Canyon Del Oro, according to Johnson.

"I know they're extremely well-coached, Dusty Peace is just a great coach," said Johnson, who saw a lot of the Dorados last season as Catalina Foothills' head coach.

"It's a showcase football game and we're excited – we really respect them," he added.

Respect is something the Nighthawks have earned over the past few seasons, and while many new coaches come up with a catch phrase to begin their time with a school, Johnson has chosen to instead let his personal philosophy guide Ironwood Ridge into a new era.

"I'm not a big slogan guy, I just believe in people working really hard," said Johnson.

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