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Official Review by Jason Bartel, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Ironwood Ridge is the newest high school in the Tucson area, opening its doors in 2001. Actually located in Oro Valley, Ironwood opened when the student population at nearby Canyon del Oro got a little too high. IR and CDO are the only two high schools in Oro Valley. When the two schools meet on the gridiron, the game is tabbed as the “Oro Valley Super Bowl.” Oro Valley is a wealthier, more conservative area on the far north side of Tucson.
Since opening in 2001, Ironwood Ridge has become a football powerhouse in the state of Arizona. The Nighthawks are consistently amongst the top ten teams in the state, and won the school’s first State Championship in 2012 at a game played in Sun Devil Stadium.
The school has really become the place that all of the great athletes in the northern part of Tucson attend. The Nighthawks are great at many sports, not just football. The most famous Nighthawk football alumni is Jake Fischer, who went on to play linebacker for the Arizona Wildcats through the 2013 season. NASCAR driver Alex Bowman also attended Ironwood Ridge.
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The concession selection at Ironwood Ridge is probably better than most high schools you'll see. There is a trailer that sells the more-common football concessions (hot dogs, soda, pizza, nachos). Everything here costs anywhere from $1-$5. Ironwood Ridge is a Coca-Cola school.
You'll also find a hot dog truck at football games serving Sonoran hot dogs. If you've never had a Sonoran dog before, you should probably have that experience when in Tucson. There's also a truck that serves shaved ice. That's pretty good early on in the season, but when you start getting into October and November, it gets a little chilly in Oro Valley for shaved ice on a Friday night.
Ironwood Ridge is named after the ironwood trees in the area, as well as the school's location, which is on the ridge of the Tortolita Mountains. If you're sitting on the home side, you'll get a great sunset over the desert horizon. If you're sitting on the visitor side, you stare at the Tortolitas the entire time. Either way, not a bad view. The Nighthawk mascot comes from the nighthawk birds that call the area home, and can be often seen flying around during football games.
The stands on both sides don't come too close to the field. The track goes around the field, and then there's a wide walkway for fans to use that runs in front of where the actual stands are. So the noise made by the students still has an effect, but not as much as it would if the stands were closer to the sidelines.
Both teams enter the field from the north end, as the locker rooms are attached to the school's gym. The Nighthawks come running out through an inflatable helmet while the Nighthawk Vanguard is playing the school's fight song, which uses the tune of the Michigan State fight song. The Vanguard and the visiting band provide all the music during games. There is a PA guy that announces each play, but no electronic music, which is how it should be. The one scoreboard for the stadium is on the north end, and can become a little confusing at night with a whole bunch of numbers that aren't exactly labeled well.
Every October, the stadium has a "Pink Out" at all the home games. This is the school's way of celebrating Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The team also wears pink shoes, socks, sleeves, and whatever else they can accessorize with. It's a pretty cool thing, and it happens the entire month every year.
The thing about Oro Valley in general is that it is very spread out, and very residential. There are only a couple of pockets that you'll find actual businesses and places to go to get a bite to eat.
Ironwood Ridge suffers even more from this because it is in an isolated area even from the rest of Oro Valley. The nearest fast food place you'll find is a little more than two miles away. Oro Valley Marketplace is about six miles away, which is where you'll find a movie theater, Olive Garden, Harvest Moon, The Keg and Red Lobster.
A popular place after football games is Marco's Pizza on La Cańada a couple miles from the school. They stay open late on Fridays to get the crowd heading there after a likely Nighthawk win. If you take La Cholla south from the high school, you'll eventually hit Foothills Mall, which has a lot of options, the best of which is Thunder Canyon Brewery.
There are no great hotel options in Oro Valley. Most of the places in the area are resort-type hotels. There's a lot of good hiking and golf in the area. Catalina State Park is near Oro Valley Marketplace, and you can go up into the Tortolitas from there.
The Ironwood Ridge students are great for the most part. Sometimes if it's a lesser opponent, they won't turn out in as big of numbers. But for the most part, every game Ironwood plays is meaningful, and the students don't take that for granted. The home stands are always full, and especially in close games, are loud right up until the clock reads all zeroes. The students use body paint, crazy clothing, and whatever else they can think of to show their support for the team.
Getting to Ironwood Ridge is very difficult. The school is located on the southwest corner of La Cholla and Naranja in Oro Valley. If you're taking the interstate to get out there, the closest exits are the Tangerine and Twin Peaks exits. If you're coming from central Tucson, taking La Cańada or La Cholla up are the best options. Either way, you're going to be doing a lot of driving on city streets to get to the school.
Once there, parking can be somewhat of a problem on gamedays. The closest lot to the stadium is the student parking lot, which is the lot on the west side of campus. This fills up quickly, and so do all the other parking lots, which forces a lot of people to park on the side of the street on Naranja and Shannon. Parking on the side of the street essentially means you're parking in the desert, so if your car can't handle that, get there early.
The visiting side has its own entrance separate from the main home entrance because there's no way to get back and forth without going on the track. There's one set of bathrooms, which is located at the main entrance on the home side. Handicap ramps are located on each end of the bleachers.
When you go to a football game at Ironwood Ridge, you know you're going to see at least one of the best teams in the state, if not two. Admission prices aren't very high, parking is free, and concessions are reasonable. If you're in Tucson and thinking about going to a game, Ironwood Ridge is certainly on the short list of places to go, and it's worth it to go to Oro Valley.
There's not really a lot of extra frills at an Ironwood Ridge game, but the overall environment and quality of football is probably worth an extra point.
I've been to many Nighthawk home games as I am an instructor with the band. It's pretty impressive to see a high school so supportive of a team, and to see a high school football team be consistently great over the years. Ironwood Ridge is one of the best football schools in Tucson, and it shows with everything that surrounds the program.
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7401 N La Cholla Blvd
Tucson, AZ 85741
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