High school football
Ironwood Ridge rolls past Marana, expects postseason rematch
Friday night’s season-opening clash between Marana and Ironwood Ridge featured two teams that had not met in four years. Now the expectation on both sides is that they’ll see each other once again in just a matter of months.
Ironwood Ridge scored 36 points off turnovers on its way to a 62-42 win against the visiting Tigers, who are coming off their first winning season since 2007. Both teams now reside in 5A, in separate regions locally, so there is a possibility of a postseason rematch.
And even though the Nighthawks have now beaten Marana in seven straight meetings, Ironwood Ridge coach Matt Johnson knows things could go differently once the Tigers work out the kinks and eliminate the miscues. Johnson’s defense forced seven turnovers Friday night, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns – first by senior Tommy Baden and later by junior Noah Pallanes — to put the game out of reach.
“You’ve got to remember there were two or three plays where the ball bounced our way,” said Johnson, who coach Ironwood Ridge to a state championship in 2012. “The score is not indicative of the game – it was one of those things where they were challenging us as coaches, as players.”
“They’ve got an excellent staff, they’ve got an excellent team and we think they’re a playoff team,” he said.
Turnovers aside, Marana senior quarterback Connor Leavens had himself quite a night. He completed 22 of 39 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns, in addition to rushing for 76 yards and a score. Leavens has high hopes for this year after his Tigers finished 6-4 in 2015, missing the state playoffs by just one win.
“It’s all about the next week and how we move on,” Leavens said. “Good teams, they recoup and they get back together and they go out and beat the next team.”
“We’ve got to fix our turnovers obviously and we can’t let up big plays on defense. Other than that, we’re in good shape,” he said.
Marana turned the ball over on the opening kickoff, setting up a 38-yard field goal by senior Matthew Malkin. Then senior Nicholas Madlangbayan pulled in a goal-line interception on the Tigers’ next possession. Just three plays later, junior Heath Beemiller danced his way up the middle for a 77-yard touchdown run to make it 9-0.
Leavens responded with a quick scoring drive, getting Marana on the board with a 19-yard touchdown pass to senior Dominic Gehr. But the Nighthawks answered right back with senior Garett Billings returning the ensuing kickoff for a 77-yard touchdown.
Ironwood Ridge pushed its lead to 22-7 in the first minute of the second quarter when Baden returned an interception 37 yards for a score. Then senior Soma Helu punched in a two-yard touchdown after Marana fumbled the subsequent kickoff, putting the Nighthawks up 28-7. The 5-foot-10-inch, 180-pound tailback Helu added 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter and finished with a game-high 192 yards on 21 carries.
“All those big plays, they wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for my linemen,” Helu said. “I’m very grateful to be playing with a wonderful, great group of men and I look forward to this season.
“We’ve got some big goals this year; we’ve just got to keep practicing hard.”
Marana trailed 42-21 at halftime and pulled within 14 when Gehr pulled in his third touchdown of the night late in the third quarter. Any hopes of a comeback were quickly extinguished as the Nighthawks responded with two quick touchdowns – a 3-yard touchdown run by junior Nick Brahler and an 83-yard score on an interception return by Pallanes.
“It was pretty nice, just balling out for my seniors,” said Pallanes, who also caught a 34-yard touchdown pass. “We’re hoping to get to the state playoffs.”
For Ironwood Ridge, the postseason has been a ritual over the last decade. Meanwhile, fourth-year coach Andy Litten and his Tigers are hoping to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time since 2007.
“Coming into this Ironwood game, we were guns blazing,” Leavens said. “It’s not the outcome we wanted but this just gives us more motivation to get to play in November and into the playoffs like we’ve always talked about doing.”