ArizonaVarsity - Two-Way Stars Shining for Ironwood Football
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Two-Way Stars Shining for Ironwood Football

It's hard to find the trio of seniors Elijah Sanders, Mehki "Bubba" Mannino-Faison and Sebastian Fiery-Hardimon off the field for any important play in an Ironwood football game. Each has added a unique element of both offense and defense to the 4-1 Eagles.

(left to right) Ironwood football seniors Elijah Sanders, Mekhi Mannino-Faison, Sebastian Fiery-Hardimon
(left to right) Ironwood football seniors Elijah Sanders, Mekhi Mannino-Faison, Sebastian Fiery-Hardimon (Eric Newman)

While several Eagles have made impacts on both aspects of the game, Sanders, Faison and Fiery-Hardimon have proven particularly effective both in their defensive roles, and have developed into talented pass catchers for senior quarterback Will Haskell and one of 5A's top passing offenses.

"You could see from how we went from sophomore year, to last year, to now, how in sync we’ve gotten. It’s so fun to play with them," Haskell said.

And the extra work on the field, regardless of position, has helped them as overall football players.

“They’ve known from the very beginning that they’re both-side guys, and that they needed to be ready to be out there when the season started. And they’ve done that," coach Chris Rizzo said.

Ironwood 2021 WR/DB Elijah Sanders
Ironwood 2021 WR/DB Elijah Sanders (Eric Newman)

Elijah Sanders calls himself a 'late bloomer.' While many of his current teammates got started with youth football as soon as possible, Sanders floated around several sports and activities before finally picking up a pigskin at age ten. Always one of the fastest players in any sport, football came naturally to him.

He can actually still remember his first touchdown, a 75-yard sweep play in a 10U game.

“That was like the best moment of my life and I fell in love with football," Sanders said.

That love has fueled him to three years as a starting receiver, most recently with a two-touchdown performance in a 20-11 win over Sunrise Mountain, and improved ability at defensive back. He has also played some running back and is a defensive starter, but still feels most at home catching the ball.

“I have really focused on my footwork and trying to get off press to get open in the summer. So receiver and slot receiver is where I feel I do my best, but I do what the team needs," he said.

“He has speed and elusiveness, and he’s dynamic with the ball on offense," Rizzo said, "and he’s probably one of the best tacklers we have on the field."

Ironwood 2021 TE/LB Mekhi Mannino-Faison
Ironwood 2021 TE/LB Mekhi Mannino-Faison (Eric Newman)

Mekhi Mannino-Faison, known by friends and family as "Bubba" has always been big. Listed at 6'4", 225 lbs with quickness and good hands, he is a natural red zone scoring threat and overall talent at tight end.

The most impactful recent change to his game, though, has come on defense. The first day Rizzo saw Mannino-Faison's frame and ability, he figured the former safety and defensive back would be better suited at inside linebacker at the high school level.

However, Mannino Faison was not so sure at first. After a successful-but-tepid junior campaign, the senior bulked up even further and has proven a weapon on defense. The position feels natural at this point.

“I wasn’t really confident about it, but I thought, ‘I’ll do it for the team,’ and eventually I started feeling the groove of it, getting back into it. And after all of that, I really like it and feel comfortable at linebacker," he said.

But the added reps on defense have not taken away his production at tight end, though, where Rizzo believes the senior will stand out in college.

“He’s great in the blocking game, has a soft pair of hands, can go and get the ball, so I see him being truly dynamic on the offensive side of the ball at the next level," Rizzo said.

Ironwood 2021 DB/WR Sebastian Fiery-Hardimon
Ironwood 2021 DB/WR Sebastian Fiery-Hardimon (Eric Newman)

Sebastian Fiery-Hardimon is small in stature. He's anything but that in confidence and toughness.

“I’m 5’7-5’8” but if you ask anyone they’ll tell you I play like I’m six-foot. I don’t care about the size because I’ll go up against anyone and the worst that can happen is I gave it my all and didn’t make the play," he said, smiling.

While Mannino-Faison and Sanders are natural offensive players, Fiery-Hardimon prefers the nickel or a hybrid defensive back spot and has just recently been thrown in as a receiver as well.

His self-proclaimed 'obsession' with the game, as well a propensity to hit with every pound in his small-but-sturdy frame, has helped him become a productive player on Friday nights.

“He’s probably pound-for-pound, for what his body can produce power-wise with his size, the strongest guy on our team. And he’s fast and aggressive so that allows him to play above his variables," Rizzo said.

Chris Rizzo (right) gives advice at a Ironwood football practice.
Chris Rizzo (right) gives advice at a Ironwood football practice. (Eric Newman)

After barely missing the playoffs in 2018 and bowing out in the first round of 5A last season, the Eagles are 4-1 with three games left, and in a position to reach heights unexplored with the current players and coaching regime. Much of that success, Rizzo said, is due to the development of a senior class that embraced a winning culture years ago.

He is proud of the way his entire senior class has grown as players.

“They’re the class that has been really committed to making this team look different," he said.

"They’ve embodied what it took to go to the next level, and the way we’re playing right now and finishing games now is because of them.”

The 4-1 Eagles travel to 2-2 Verrado on Nov. 6.

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