Ironwood Ridge won the Division II championship in 2012, and though it lost nearly every significant contributor to that title team, the Nighthawks got off to a great start this fall with a 5-1 record.
But the Nighthawks (5-4) have lost three straight games and, entering tonight's regular season finale at Casa Grande Vista Grande (3-6), need to win possibly get some help elsewhere in Division II to avoid getting shut out of the postseason. They're currently No. 15 in the rankings, with the top 16 getting in, though the boost from beating Vista Grande might not be enough to hold off teams below them who are facing tougher finale foes.
In fact, Ironwood Ridge could win and still get passed by another local team, Sierra Vista Buena (5-4), which is 17th and could slip into the top 16 with a win over Sunnyside (5-4).
If the Nighthawks were to miss out on the postseason, it would be the first local defending state champion in more than two decades to not get a chance to defend their title.
Here's how the most recent local champs have fared the year before
* 2009 Ironwood Ridge 4A-I champs; 2010 state runner-up
* 2005 Palo Verde 4A-II champs; 2006 lost in 1st round
* 2003 Sunnyside 4A champs; 2004 lost in quarterfinals
* 2001 Sunnyside 4A champs; 2002 lost in semifinals
* 1998 Sabino 4A champs; 1999 state runner-up in 5A)
Ironwood Ridge and Buena aren't the only local teams that have to sweat out both their last games and the Arizona Interscholastic Association's live bracket announcement show (yes, that's a thing) on Saturday morning.
Cienega, also in Division II, could find itself getting into state despite starting the year 1-5 if it can beat Sahuaro (8-1) on the road tonight.
In Division IV, none of the locals that are currently in the top 16 — No. 10 Sahuarita (6-3), No. 14 Rio Rico (6-3) and No. 16 Walden Grove (5-4) — can afford to lose their final games. As fate would have it, none of them are facing each other this week, but each has a tough test.
Sahuarita is at Palo Verde (5-4), which at No. 19 is still in the playoff mix itself; Rio Rico hosts No. 2 Chandler Seton Catholic (8-1) and will have to do so without quarterback Sean Fanning, who broke his collarbone last week; and Walden Grove hosts No. 9 Safford (7-2).
For Walden Grove, a playoff berth would be an amazing achievement for a school in its second year of varsity play and its first with seniors.