New Era Begins at Ironwood Ridge
Hardy named Nighthawks' head coach
WEEKLY BLOG: 3/17/19
For the first time in 10 years, Ironwood Ridge will take the field under the direction of a new head coach as James Hardy Jr. has been named to lead the Nighthawks.
His hiring was approved by the Amphitheater Public School District last Tuesday.
Hardy succeeds Matt Johnson, who stepped down in January and became the head coach at Marana Mountain View two weeks later.
"I was pretty excited about the situation," Hardy said after receiving a call from Ironwood Ridge Athletic Director Tony Jacobsen. "I wasn't sure how the transition was going to be, but I was definitely ecstatic about the opportunity they are giving me."
This is Hardy's first head coaching position. He spent seven years in Southern California coaching junior college football at Los Angeles Valley College and Antelope Valley College. Last summer, Hardy moved to Oro Valley and was hired as an assistant at Canyon del Oro coaching the offensive line.
At LAVC, he was the run game coordinator. Then at AVC, where he played, Hardy moved over to the defensive side of the ball coaching defensive linemen and later linebackers.
Hardy was looking for an opportunity to advance and become a head coach at the same time several jobs in the Tucson area opened up. Marana Mountain View, Flowing Wells, Catalina Foothills, and Ironwood Ridge were all seeking new head coaches.
"That's the one that opened up the latest," Hardy said of the Ironwood Ridge job. "I live down the street from IRHS."
During his time at the college level, Hardy scouted high school games on Friday nights watching to see how they would perform under the lights. With the young men he coached, it was a combination of helping them progress and mature. It was also a time to help the players understand the purpose of what they were doing as they strove to make it to a Division I college one day.
"I've been around some good coaches," Hardy said. "I learned the importance of building relationships with the student-athletes."
Just like high school, recruiting at the JC level combines a mix of academics and athletic skills. In addition to his connections with college coaches, Hardy is also able to explain the recruiting process to both parents and the players.
Moving to Arizona with his wife and three kids has not only given him time to acclimate, but also able to assess the high school football environment.
"Working at CDO prepared me to understand how Arizona football works," Hardy said. "It gave me an opportunity to learn what it was about here."
Hardy had an opportunity to meet the team last week and after Spring Break (this coming week), he plans to see how his returning players move. With kids having a limited time in high school, Hardy wants to put them in the best situation possible.
At Canyon del Oro, the Dorados thrived on a strong rushing attack (242 yards per game). Ironwood Ridge leaned that direction as well as the Nighthawks ran the ball on nearly 80 percent of their plays from scrimmage. Hardy would like to take a couple of those defenders out of the box, but it depends on the personnel that he has.
"I've played and coached in a spread offense," Hardy said. "I like the ability to make the defense play in space."
Hardy is currently teaching Physical Education and Health at Esperero Canyon Middle School in the Catalina Foothills District. He is expecting to transition to a similar position at Ironwood Ridge when the new school year begins.
Ironwood Ridge (6-5 in 2018) has a strong tradition. The Nighthawks have qualified for the playoffs in all 16 seasons they have been an AIA member. That includes four trips to the semifinals and the 2012 Division II championship. Under Johnson's 10 years at the helm, IRHS compiled a record of 85-35. Hardy embraces the pressure of maintaining that and said he puts more on himself than any outside entity would be able to.
"Coach Johnson had a great tradition here," Hardy said. "I knew when I looked into it how successful they were. My goal is to build as a team and a program from the foundation that was here before me and put my stamp on it."
Last season, Ironwood Ridge shook off a 1-3 start in non-region games to win five of its last six regular season games. The exclamation mark on the turnaround was a 20-17 road win in Vail at Cienega to take the 5A Southern Region. Senior Griffin Sauer booted the game-winning field goal with just four seconds remaining.
It will be a mix of old and new on the Nighthawks' staff. Jeff Drescher is staying on as the defensive coordinator. Hardy will be hiring some of the JV coaches from last year's team. The main priority between now and the start of Spring Ball (April 22) is to find an offensive coordinator as the job is too much for a first-year head coach to try and juggle.
The spring will be a time to install the new offense which will then lead into summer workouts and 7-on-7 competitions. When the season opens on Aug. 23 at home, the Nighthawks will be greeted by a familiar face as Marana Mountain View (and former coach Johnson) is the first opponent.
Fortunately, Ironwood Ridge has experience at quarterback with Octavio Audry-Cobos. In 10 games as a junior, he passed for 760 yards and rushed for 776 more combining for 16 touchdowns. On the defense, junior Eli Pallanes (in the highlight above) led the way with four interceptions.
There will be key pieces to replace in the skill positions as 1,200-yard rusher Nathan Grijalva and top receiver Andrew Cook will be graduating in a couple of months. Grijalva accounted for 45 percent of the rushing yardage while Cook, who signed with CSU-Pueblo, was responsible for 66 percent of the receiving yards.
On defense, the top three tacklers were seniors, including linebacker CJ Mustain (124 tackles).
With his vast experience in the game of football, Hardy has learned a lot from his various mentors.
"Being committed and dedicated," Hardy said. "Being tough. Being humble. Effort and pride."
That last word is something he seeks to instill at IRHS. Pride in the school. Pride in the football program. Pride in the community.
He will get his players academically ready and teach the importance of doing the right things in the classroom to be eligible for the possibility of continuing on at an NCAA institution. But in the end, it's to have his charges take every opportunity to do their very best.
"I truly believe that if I can build a relationship with the parents and my players, that will be the best for my situation at Ironwood Ridge," Hardy said. "If we buy into what we can do as a unit, we can be successful."