Finally returning home, Ironwood looks to acquire first victory of the season against Agua Fria
September 13, 2017 by Max Madden, Arizona State University
Winning a football game on the road is considered one of the most difficult things to do in sports, and no program understands this claim more than Ironwood High School.
The Eagles opened the season with three consecutive away games in Gilbert -- a one and a half hour journey from their own campus in Glendale -- and came away empty-handed each time.
Although it’s been a less-than-ideal start for Ironwood, head coach Ian Curtis noted that a contest on the Eagles’ own turf is a welcome change of pace.
“We were on the road three weeks in a row and played three quality opponents,” Curtis said. “But finally we’re at home, so the kids get to come in refreshed and energized. This is gonna be a good game for us.”
Friday’s matchup is far more favorable than the Eagles’ first few games this season, as Ironwood takes on the 1-3 Agua Fria Owls. Although he’s well-versed on his opponent's’ offensive scheme, Curtis admitted that the Owls often choose to shake things up.
“They like being kinda tricky on special team with a lot of onside kicks,” Curtis said. “They also run a shield punt where they spread the whole field.”
Curtis also mentioned that during last season’s matchup with Agua Fria, the Owls seemed to switch up their entire attack at the last minute to take advantage of Ironwood’s lack of size.
“Last year they were a spread team but when they came out and played us they got into more power football sets,” Curtis said. “We’re preparing for that in case they want to play power football.”
No matter which offense the Owls roll out against the Eagles Friday, Agua Fria’s offensive production will rely heavily on the performance of senior quarterback Nathaniel Verduzco. The 6-foot-2, 180 pound playmaker already has seven touchdown passes and 716 yards through his first four games of the season. Curtis believes Verduzco’s success has a lot to do with his versatility and ability to make the most out of every play.
“Their quarterback is efficient,” Curtis said. “He does a nice job. If you fall asleep they’ll run their little zone read game and he’ll pull the ball and take off so we gotta be ready for that.”
Verduzco isn’t Agua Fria’s only offensive weapon. Sophomore running back Nicolas Murguia leads the rushing attack for the Owls and has been sensational so far this season, amassing 234 yards on just 44 carries. Curtis was full of praise for the 5-foot-6, 150 pound tailback.
“Their tailback’s a shifty kid,” Curtis said. “He’s really elusive with quick cuts. We’re trying to replicate that as much as we can.”
Ironwood will be able to counter Agua Fria’s stout rushing attack with one of their own Friday night, as junior running back Devante Wimbish has tallied back to back 100-plus rushing yard performances for the Eagles -- a feat he credits to his teammates up front and the addition of a new element to his run style.
“I’ve been following my linemen, they’ve been making really big holes for me to run through,” Wimbish said. “I’ve been focusing on being more patient, I think that’s helping me too.”
The rushing attack has steadily improved over the course of the season, but Curtis mentioned during Tuesday’s practice that it’s nowhere near where the Eagles want it.
“We should be rushing the ball for anywhere between 175 and 195 yards per game,” Curtis said. “We want to get 90 snaps on the offensive side, we’ve only been averaging about 55.”
Increasing the Eagles’ offensive efficiency is a task that now falls on the shoulder of junior quarterback Bailee Northcott, who looks to be the favorite to win the early-season quarterback battle over sophomore Corey Tschantz.
Although the Eagles are 0-3, Northcott believes the Ironwood offensive scheme can still be extremely effective, as long as he improves in two specific areas of his game.
“We feel like we can run anything on any team and that’s what we’re going to do,” Northcott said. “Personally I want to work on better reads and making my decisions faster.”
The Eagles have a huge opportunity Friday to turn their season around and begin a push for the playoffs before it’s too late, and Northcott stated that playing on their own campus should give them a boost they haven’t experienced this season.
“It’s rough being on the road three games in a row, but now after class you can already get in your mindset for the game,” Northcott said. “Our band is huge, it’s always fun having our band here and having your crowd behind you is so much fun.”