From a one-win season in 2022 to 3-1 in 2023 — the journey of the Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks getting to where they are at this point in the season was unfathomable to most.
But not to second-year head coach Dale Stott, the coaching staff and players.
A true rebuild of a program takes commitment, hard work and an all-in mentality.
“These guys were young kids last year,” Stott said after Ironwood Ridge beat visiting Douglas 47-14 on Friday night. “We started 10 sophomores on that team. We had one returning senior from the year before, that’s all we had. They were all babies, and they grew up. What they did was work their tails off to earn money for a weight room, they put the money in themselves. Raised the funds and they lived in that weight room.”
“They went from the weak team that was young and inexperienced to a team that believes they can win and knows they can win.”
This is not last year’s team, and it is evident by the way the Nighthawks are producing on the field.
Going into the game against Douglas, coached by former Arizona lineman Hunter Long, the Nighthawks already doubled the wins from the previous year.
Many would be content with that achievement, but not the Nighthawks.
While they have confidence as a team, they know the season is still young and there are a lot of games still to play.
The Nighthawks didn’t take the game against the Bulldogs lightly.
“I thought Douglas was a really good football team, I still do. I think they are really talented; they have a young quarterback that is really dangerous,” Stott said. “They have some really good receivers and skill kids, so they are dangerous.
“I was worried about being able to stop them and I was glad that we were able to move the football on them. My hats off to Douglas. They are a really tough team, and they will do well.”
In the second quarter, Douglas, led by sophomore quarterback Ivan Higuera, showed some of that danger Stott talked about.
With Ironwood Ridge leading 7-0, Higuera found junior running back Jason Hurtado for a Bulldog touchdown to tie the game.
The Bulldogs’ final score came in the third quarter after a crazy fumble recovery put the ball at the Nighthawks’ 10-yard line.
With Douglas on offense, Ironwood Ridge’s defense punched the ball out, creating a fumble.
From the pile of players fighting to recover the fumble, the football popped out right to a Douglas player. While the fight for the football continued in the pile, the Bulldog player scampered to the 10-yard line before a Nighthawk defender caught up to make the tackle.
Two plays later, Hurtado found the end zone.
The Nighthawks’ win over the Bulldogs was led by senior quarterback Dominic Norris.
Norris, selected the Nighthawks’ player of the game by the coaching staff, tallied three rushing touchdowns, one passing touchdown and 143 passing yards.
“I have to give all props to my line, my big boys up front, it’s all them. I just followed their blocks see the hole and just run,” said Norris.
Defense leads to offense and that was definitely the story for the Nighthawks.
Norris gave praise to the defense: “Coming in clutch, they are one of the best (or) the best defense in our league, I believe.”
With 3 minutes to go in the half and Ironwood Ridge leading 19-7, junior cornerback Grant Dooling made an interception. Dooling advanced the ball to the Douglas 1-yard line, setting up a Norris touchdown.
Special teams added a touchdown when Matthew Kroner fielded a punt and ran it back for a touchdown, putting the Nighthawks up 33-7 at the half.
Junior tight end David Baba and senior running back Conrad Tuffly contributed to the touchdown count for Ironwood Ridge in the first half.
Ironwood Ridge’s final two touchdowns came curtesy of two quarterback keepers by Norris.
The Nighthawks travel to Sahuaro to face the Cougars (2-2) on Friday.
Douglas (1-3) travels to Empire (1-3) for its first 4A Gila game of the season.
— Ironwood Ridge’s longtime trainer George Goodridge, who retired in 2020, took a break from his retirement travels to make an encore appearance on Friday night. Good to see George on the Nighthawks’ sidelines again. Ironwood Ridge as well as other schools in Southern Arizona are without full-time trainers presently.