There was a notable energy at Ironwood High School’s spring football game on May 17, as first-year coach Chris Rizzo was cheering and running around the field as much as the players looking to secure their roster spots.
The Eagles practiced for several weeks leading up to the exhibition, but athletes finishing other sports or academic commitments were not always able to make it. The event felt like the first time the entire group united and Rizzo could see an early manifestation of the talent he will have to utilize this year.
While a group of receivers and defensive backs ran routes, Rizzo threw passes, and led several cheers in team huddles throughout the night, a very hands-on approach to coaching.
He hopes that energy inspires the team to play the same way.
“I try to teach the kids that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and that’s something you have to hold onto. You can think yourself into energy and positivity, and that becomes a habit,” Rizzo said.
Quarterback Will Haskell, who is set to enter his junior year, said he and his teammates instantly bonded with their new coach. They could feel his desire to help them improve.
“The first day he saw me, he looked me in my eyes and said, ‘I’m going to make you a star,’ and he’s been a big factor in my development since then,” Haskell said.
The Eagles hope that development can help lead them to a playoff berth, despite the team’s culture change. Ironwood, a senior-heavy team last season, still has a few returning veterans. But, just like Haskell, the majority of the varsity group is preparing to enter its junior year.
Among those juniors is EJ Sanders, who described the class as “a little undersized.” But this summer they’re getting bigger and stronger on the field and in the weight room. In the meantime, focus will be pointed toward on-the-field technique.
With a young core, the Eagles will look to form their own identity.
“We have a young team with a lot of really fast guys, and we want to have a better season than we did before. We are pretty happy with everything at the moment,” Sanders said.
The Eagles finished with a 6-4 record last season, and narrowly missed the 5A playoffs. The bracket included 16 teams, and Ironwood was ranked No. 17. The Eagles have every reason to believe a spot in the bracket late this fall.
Before that, though, the team will take part in seven-on-seven passing tournaments and big-men competitions, much like many of the state’s top football teams.
Sanders said the speed shown in practices, as well as a palpable desire to improve before the regular season, could mean success in summer challenges.
“I feel like we’re going to have a lot of success in all that. We have a lot of intensity, and we’re going to try to play just as hard as we would in real games,” Sanders said.
The offseason games will serve as a chance to work on technique. The games can give the Eagle players a chance to bond, while competing without the pressure of the season. However, nothing compares to the excitement of kids running out with helmets and pads on, Rizzo said.
“The trophies worth hoisting are in November. They require a lot of time and a lot of effort,” Rizzo said. “This summer is going to be fun, but we know what we’re really working toward the whole time.”