TUCSON - As Notre Dame players stood on the football field, emotional after their season-ending playoff loss to Ironwood Ridge, Saints interim coach Gary Gregory weaved through the group, offering words of encouragement.
"Everybody, heads up," Gregory said as he patted players on their shoulders. "Everyone, congratulate each other."
The 14th-seeded Saints' emotional playoff run came to a close Thursday night in their 21-14 loss to sixth-ranked Ironwood Ridge (10-2) in the Division II quarterfinals.
Notre Dame (7-5) rallied to tie the game at 7-7 and later cut the Nighthawks' lead to 21-14 in the third quarter.
With their head coach Scot Bemis on leave while he battles lung cancer, the Saints played with greater inspiration.
"We want to win it for him," senior quarterback Jordan Gehrke said. "He's the guy who wants to win it for Notre Dame even though he's going through this. We dug down for him, and we gave everything we've got for him, and hopefully he recovers well."
Notre Dame Prep made its second straight trip to Tucson for the playoffs. Last week, the Saints came down and upset No. 3 Salpointe Catholic, 33-14, after overcoming a 14-0 deficit.
Gregory, the team's defensive coordinator, has served as the Saints interim coach since Bemis took a leave of absence in mid-September.
"We're upset right now, but we'll get over it," Gregory said. "Hope everything works out for my buddy Coach Bemis, and get to spend a little bit more time with him now. Just hope and pray he gets better.
"Gosh darn it, I just wish he was around. The kids played hard."
Led by Mitch Fischer's 302 total yards and three touchdowns, Ironwood Ridge amassed 382 yards of offense. The Nighthawks took a 14-7 lead on Fischer's 75-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter and went ahead 21-7 on Fischer's 2-yard run with 2:23 left in the third.
But Notre Dame cut the lead to 21-14 on its next drive when Gehrke found junior Nick Cole for a 19-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
"We didn't panic down (21-7)," Gregory said.
After Ironwood Ridge punted on its next drive, Notre Dame reached the Nighthawks' 26, but on third-and-6, Gehrke was sacked for a loss of 13 yards and it forced the Saints to punt.
"Defense is about the team, and a number of kids stepped up," Nighthawks coach Matt Johnson said.
The Saints' loss snapped their five-game winning streak. For Notre Dame, Cole finished with 17 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown. Junior Grant Martinez caught five passes for 42 yards. He scored on a 7-yard touchdown catch that tied the game 7-7 in the second quarter.
Gehrke went 11 for 16 for 124 yards, a touchdown and a late interception when the Saints reached the Nighthawks 26 in the scoreless first quarter.
"We gave everything we got," Gehrke said. "Ironwood Ridge is a great football team. No one expected us to get here. We got here, and we've got to think about positive things."