Maybe Ironwood should try to add more sports.
In recent years the Eagles most successful programs have been boys volleyball, which began in 2011, and badminton, which started in 2013.
Last spring the boys volleyball team reached the Division II state final. It was the first year that sport split into two divisions.
The Ironwood badminton team is hoping for a similar benefit this fall. In each of their first three years the Eagles made the playoffs. Twice they ran into the much larger Chandler schools and lost in the first round.
“The goal is always to win state. In the years past it was far reaching, because of the Xaviers, Desert Vistas and Perrys,” Ironwood badminton coach Brett Stafford said. “It’s hard to beat a chain of kids that are playing badminton constantly and they’re just reloading. Winning state is very realistic now. You’re not going to have to beat a really good team in the first round now.”
Despite an unusual amount of success in day one, the Eagles are still looking for their first playoff win. If early results are an indication, they’ll get that and more.
Ironwood is 8-0 and did not lose a match until Wednesday, when the Eagles knocked off district rival Liberty 6-3.
In this new Division II, Ironwood is on the short list of top contenders. Teams in the way will be perennial roadblock Phoenix Sunnyslope, fast-starting Gilbert Mesquite and Scottsdale Chaparral.
After three years of reaching the playoffs and bowing out in the first round the six varsity players, all of whom are seniors, sense a chance to go out on a high note.
“We started from nothing and we’ve come so far. I want to keep us going in that direction,” Katie McNelly said.
While Ironwood, like every campus Peoria Unified School District, started a program from ground zero in 2013, the school was the earliest adapter in the district. The 2013 team went 14-1 and claimed the section title
In the first year or two, Coach Stafford said, some of the school’s better girls athletes joined the team. What they lacked in knowledge of the sport, they made up for in physical gifts.
“We had 50 show up for the first tryouts. The air conditioning went out and it was hot as crud in here. But they stuck it out and went three weeks in a non-air conditioned gym. So there’s some dedication in the girls,” Coach Stafford said.
McNelly is one of two dour-year players on that original varsity team, along with Elizabeth Havrilla, When the program started, she said, all but two girls were new to the sport.
McNelly credited her coach for getting things off the ground so quickly.
“It was the first year of our program but we had a coach who was very well prepared to teach us.,” McNelly said. “We probably would have had more problems if we didn’t have our coach.”
Coach Stafford taught the sport in P.E. classes. When the program began, he sought out Phoenix Sunnyslope coach Sarah Schlesinger and Guy Chadwick, who runs a badminton center in Mesa.
More girls joined the program. Mary Gregorio played badminton some before starting school at Ironwood, and the success of the team brought her in as a sophomore.
Jasmine Morales had to find something to do after school, chose badminton and is now one of the Eagles’ top three players.
“I was kind of threated into it by my mother,” Morales said with a laugh. “It was join a sport or join band, and I don’t know how to read music and am afraid of crowds. This is a small crowd and I get to be athletic.”
Ironwood went undefeated in 2014 and earned the No. 2 seed in Division I. Their reward? A much deeper team from Gilbert Perry that went on to reach the state finals as a No. 15 seed.
Yet, Ironwood had arrived as a badminton program.
“I feel like we’ve gained a lot of respect, especially from other schools,” Gregorio said.
In the last couple years, Coach Stafford said, fewer girls are trying out. However most of the ones that show up are there to play badminton or are willing to put the time in to learn.
“Right now I have maybe three girls that play another sport. To watch the development of those three- and four-year players is amazing,” Coach Stafford said. “I have a kid that I probably would have cut after one day. To see her watch other girls, see how it’s done and pick that up is awesome. The next day a totally different kid is there.”
He said the seniors on varsity are a bit less athletic than their predecessors. But they make up for it — and then some — with their smart and scrappy approach.
The senior leaders have experienced enough to notice who is taking the sport seriously and who isn’t.
“You can definitely tell from the players we run into from other schools. Some will laugh and act ditzy. Other schools take it very serious,” Morales said.
One serious local rival is Liberty, and from what the players intimated, it’s not a friendly matchup. Before Wednesday's Ironwood win, the Eagles were ranked No. 4 in Division II and the Lions were No. 5.
Sunnyslope has been one of the state’s best programs and is the one Ironwood measures itself against. The Eagles get another crack at the Vikings Sept. 27.
From there, it’s state and with a level playing field, Ironwood hopes to emulate its volleyball team and reach the finals.
“It is nice to have the split, more so that the schools are evenly numbered with students and I’m not playing a school that’s twice our size,” Coach Stafford said. “Knowing those schools that have done well are sometimes twice our size and actually have badminton club players, it’s good to play schools we’re like. It makes it a lot fairer for the smaller schools. “