Highland High School’s football program was one play away from knocking off two-time defending 6A state champion Chandler in last year’s semifinal game.
It took a two-point conversion in overtime for the Wolves to beat the Hawks, who entered the postseason as the No. 5 seed with an 11-2 record, their best in many years. Highland was led by a plethora of seniors on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Kaleb Herbert, athlete Kohner Cullimore and most of the offensive line.
The departure of last year’s senior class has allowed for several backups from last season to emerge as starters in 2019. But don’t expect a drop-off in talent.
As has become common since Brock Farrel took over the program in 2017, this year’s team has the same confidence and playmakers to make yet another deep run in the playoffs.
“I think it gives us confidence that even if we don’t have a bunch of four or five-star guys, we can still compete,” Farrel said. “Last year we had a team of just a bunch of really good football players. I don’t think this year will be any different.”
As is the case every season, new leaders have begun to emerge. One in particular is sophomore quarterback Gage Dayley.
Despite his young age, Dayley impressed the coaching staff and the rest of his teammates throughout the spring and summer. Farrel said that nearly every pass he throws is on target, an impressive characteristic from a player that young.
He’s started to become more of a vocal leader for the team, but still tends to lead by example from under center.
“I’ve seen myself become a leader a little bit, but guys like Tanner Crandall, Zach Schroeder, those type of seniors have really helped me out,” Dayley said. “I’m thankful to have those guys around me.”
Schroeder, Crandall and Tru Tanner, who made the transition from quarterback to wideout, are just some of the weapons the Dayley has to his disposal at receiver this season. Tight end Tysen Rohner will also prove to be a highly used asset with his 6-foot-6, 202-pound frame.
Dayley will also benefit from a couple of talented running backs returning from last year’s team in senior Danny Wood and junior Max Davis. Wood was part of the three-headed monster the Hawks had early on last season with Kullimore and Dayton Huffman.
Later in the season, Davis earned reps at tailback in relief of the three, who also started on defense.
“I’m playing both ways again this year, it’s something I’m excited about,” Wood said. “I just can’t wait to go out there and show what I can do.”
Wood will help anchor a linebacking corps that also returns senior Robert Kingsford, who played a vital role in Highland’s success last season. Junior linebacker Kam Cullimore, Kohner’s younger brother, has opened eyes this offseason and is expected to have a break out year.
Highland’s linebackers are just a small sample size of the talent the Hawks will bring on the defensive side of the ball this season. Senior cornerback Ja’sean Lee is one of the best at his position, while junior defensive end Colten Ellsworth imposes a threat to opposing quarterbacks.
“We are always going to have some of our best guys on defense,” Farrel said. “We play defense with a purpose, and we are always going to be physical and tough. We are going to be creative as we have to be.”
Highland remains a team with high energy and a mindset to prove last year’s deep playoff run wasn’t a fluke. They’re out to make a statement this season, and it starts on Friday, Aug. 23 against Alhambra.
Every member of the Hawks’ football program knows success will come from how they come together as a team, just like they did last season. That’s been one of the main focuses this offseason, and so far it’s worked out.
“Football isn’t all about winning or losing, it’s about coming together as brothers,” Wood said. “But I know if we can do that, it will lead to success. We are out to prove last year wasn’t a on-time thing.
“We want to show Highland is building a good football program.”
Gilbert-area 6A schools gearing up for the new season
The Jaguars had their worst season since Jeremy Hathcock took over the program in 2006. While Desert Ridge still made the playoffs, it finished just 3-9 on the year. Injuries were one of the main causes of the team’s struggles, but with several talented players returning, Desert Ridge may return to its old ways.
Austin Kolb has improved tremendously since last season, as the junior appears to be more confident in the pocket. He should be, as he has Cal-commit Aidan Lee and Andrew Chino at his disposal. San Diego state commit Joquarri Price leads what will be a potent defense, along with linebacker Koby Hathcock, an Iowa State commit at long snapper, leading the charge at linebacker. The Jaguars are determined to change course from last season, and they will be tested right out of the gate.
Desert Ridge opens the season on Friday, Aug. 23 against Red Mountain.
Is this the year the Pumas dethrone district-rival Chandler? The Pumas lost talent to graduation, but like have also reloaded on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Chubba Purdy, who committed to Louisville in the summer, will make plays all year long for the Pumas along with wideout Jorden Young and running back Peyton Hill.
Perry lost four of its top tacklers from last year’s 6A runner-up team, and will now turn to defensive back Andrei Mayberry and linebackers Cole Sabetta and Jackson Ford to lead the charge. The Pumas remain in contention to make the first-ever Open Division playoff.
Perry opens the season on Friday, Aug. 23 with a showdown against Pinnacle.