West Valley Preps
Chris Rizzo inherited an Ironwood football program spearheaded by an athletic, skilled Class of 2021.
From his year as an Eagles assistant he also realized that this group was the most football savvy.
So with his first offseason of preparation kicking into gear, he did something that may seem counterintuitive. Rizzo asked his core guys to do something else for a couple months.
“I’m a big proponent of having our kids try to play two or three sports. Our quarterback Will (Haskell), I pushed him toward volleyball, which he excelled at. Elijah (Sanders) and Sebastian (Fiery-Hardimon) went out and did track. That kind of gave me time to figure out, outside of our Xs and Os guys, who is going to make up the rest of our program. The nice thing was leadership stepped up in the absence of it. When you’re putting in a new offense and defense, you have to teach the guys basics, like huddling up.” he said.
That’s right. Rizzo may be a first-time coach in his 20s. But he did not arrive as a 21st Century cliche, touting his variant of the spread.
He is a defensive coach with more than a touch of an old-school approach.
At first blush, a more frequent pro-style attack looks like an odd fit with a roster chock full of speedy, shifty playmakers like Haskell, Sanders, Fiery-Hardimon senior-to-be Nate Guzman and junior tailback Junior Shima.
“We have a lot of speed so I’d like to see how to we use it. We lost a lot of size,” Sanders said.
But the leadership group appears enthusiastic with the new approach, realizing any scheme can be dynamic if it is executed properly.
“He’s trying to get us mentally prepared and get our football knowledge to where it should be,” Haskell said.
While other soon-to-be juniors are on the recruiting radar, Haskell is the undeniable centerpiece, having picked up offers from Duke, Iowa State and NAU in the last month.
He also is working with his fourth varsity coach in two years. Haskell started some games as a freshman in 2017 for Deer Valley coach Eric Bolus, then worked in the 2018 spring semester with new Skyhawks coach Dan Friedman before he, Fiery-Hardimon and three other Deer Valley players transferred to Ironwood after an off-campus fight last summer.
After sitting out the first five games of 2018, he started four games in Ian Curtis’ last season coaching the Eagles.
But Haskell and Sanders said they were comfortable with Rizzo as the new coach, perhaps because he, the players and the Glendale school became acquainted last fall.
Rizzo grew up in Pennsylvania and played for Division III NCAA power John Carroll University in Ohio. He stayed to coach the Blue Streak outside linebackers in 2015, then served a two-year graduate assistant stint at his alma mater.
He said he and his fiancée are not beach people and were tired of the cold. The hiking and weather led them to Arizona and Rizzo applied blind at three schools.
Rizzo arrived in July 2018 as an Ironwood defensive assistant.
“Ironwood has a lit of historic football tradition. I believe the last time they made a run at the state championship game was 2005. They had a really good history,” Rizzo said. “I’m from Pennsylvania and I was in Ohio, which are historically top 10 states in high school football. But when I moved out here and saw what Friday night action was about, I realized this place is very special. They have incredible pool of talent in Arizona. I get a chance to play a national contender like Centennial every year. That gets me going, competitively.”
He also learned that Ironwood, as the International Baccalaureate hub for the Peoria Unified School District, draws students outside its boundaries more for academics than athletics.
Curtis retired from coaching days after the 2018 season ended.
After he was named coach in January, Rizzo sought to maintain the school’s academic and athletic tradition. He also leaned on the Eagles’ most successful coaches, Jordan Augustine (boys basketball) and Tim Beck (boys soccer).
“I wanted to mirror and emulate their programs in ways. So I spent some time talking to those guys. Coach Ian Curtis before me had laid a good foundation in terms of what football meant for student athletes,” Rizzo said.
College football phraseology is prominent in the concepts he wants to introduce to the program — such as study tables and mentorship training.
Sanders said he has noticed more attention to detail in the offseason.
“We go more into depth with coach Rizzo now. Our lifting and speed training schedule is busier,” Sanders said.
One aspect is not as settled as the new coach hoped it would be in May — the coaching staff. Ironwood lost offensive line coach Sean Langan, and Rizzo said that is the hardest position group to secure a quality coach.
Sean Hegarty remains as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, while Will Elet is at wide receivers.
Rizzo will serve as defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. 2018 freshman team coach Gerald Sydnor will lead the linebackers and junior varsity coach Dan Buegeler remains and will also work some with the varsity. Dillon Suber now coaches the defensive line.
At least the players will not have to change in midstream this season. In 2018, senior tailback Devante Wimbish started as a quarterback before Haskell became eligible and directed an offense more similar to the Wildcat.
Plus Fiery-Hardimon, Manny and Samuel Ticono and Mekhi Mannino-Faison had to find their way as the difficulty of the schedule ramped up.
“The upcoming juniors and seniors, our bond is tight. We’re going to feed off everyone’s energy,” Haskell said. “In summer I got the timing and chemistry with my guys and had to sit out five. It should be a lot smoother this year.”
In a way, Rizzo has noticed, this block of transfers was just another new aspect of high school football in Arizona. He had not played or coached in a state with open enrollment until last year.
On a basic level sometimes these young football players do not know each other.
“So I needed to find a way to have my older guys take the reins on what our program is and show these eighth graders who are going to become freshmen, this is what Ironwood football looks like. You may only know five or six of your teammates. But the process of becoming a championship football team involves breaking down those barriers and getting to know one another,” Rizzo said.