Chandler/Highland semifinals

The 6A semifinal game between Chandler and Highland was one of the most exhilarating in prep football history in Arizona. The Wolves ran a play called Manapua to defeat the Hawks in overtime.

It was the play that helped Chandler advance to the state title game and win it for the third year in a row.

It was the play that sent Highland home after its first semifinals appearance since 2004. It was also the play that capped off one of the most exhilarating prep football playoff games in Arizona history.

“Manapua,” Chandler football coach Rick Garretson said with a smile. “It’s a great play, isn’t it?”

In Hawaiian culture, “Manapua” is a term used to describe a barbecue pork-filled bun.

But at Chandler, it’s been one of the most successful plays in the Wolves’ playbook since it was created in 2011.

“It’s a conversion play,” Garretson said. “It’s a play we teach the kids back in camp. We keep it in our back pocket just in case.”

The play was used in late November against Highland in the 6A semifinals. The Hawks, led by then second-year coach Brock Farrel, forced Chandler to overtime.

Highland struck first, as then-senior athlete Kohner Cullimore, Highlands do-it-all player in 2019, found the end zone to give the Hawks a 6-point lead. Austin McNamara, now a freshman kicker at Texas Tech, made it 7.

It didn’t take long for Chandler to answer, however, as now-freshman running back at Cal-Berkeley DeCarlos Brooks scored. The Wolves lined up to kick the extra point to send it to another overtime. But then Farrel called a timeout.

“I thought we could block it, honestly,” Farrel said. “But we had a formation set up just in case they came back out to go for two. We were ready, they just executed.”

Shaun Aguano, the mastermind behind Manapua who is now the running backs coach at Arizona State University, admits that he has always been a risk-taker. And his players knew that too. He called over his quarterback, BYU-bound Jacob Conover, and Texas-bound tight end Brayden Liebrock.

They trusted him and he trusted them. So they made the call.

“The kids know I’m a gambler,” Aguano said, “so after Coach Farrel called that timeout we all kind of looked at each other and agreed to go for it.

Manapua isn’t a complex play, but it does involve proper timing.

Conover faked a pitch to Brooks, then rolled to his right. Meanwhile, Liebrock faked an inside route off the line before running a shallow out-route toward the front pylon.

The play is designed for Conover to get rid of the ball almost instantly after he turns to face Liebrock. Had he waited even a half-second to throw, Highland linebacker Robert Kingsford would have had the game-winning sack. Instead, Liebrock caught the two-point attempt in the end zone. Celebration ensued.

“I knew where I had to be and what I had to do when I saw him roll out,” Kingsford said. “He’s a really good quarterback and he just made a great play.”

When Garretson, Chandler’s offensive coordinator at the time, met Farrel at midfield following the game, they embraced.

“He asked me what play it was,” said Garretson, who was hired to take over the Chandler program as head coach in January. “I told him it was Manapua. He kind of just looked at me and started laughing. He knew he recognized it.”

Aguano created Manapua in 2011, his first season as head coach of the Wolves. Garretson was one of his assistants at the time. So was Farrel.

The entire staff was in the coach’s office when Aguano walked in with the new play concept.

Farrel described it as being similar to a scene from the movie “The Waterboy,” when Bobby Boucher meets Coach Klein for the first time. A new play enters Klein’s mind and he immediately draws it up on the chalkboard. “This is the play, this is it,” Klein says.

“That was basically Shaun,” Farrel said. “He just kept telling us he got it and we kind of looked at him like, ‘what in the world are you talking about?’

“He drew it up and it worked.”

Manapua was first used during that 2011 season. Chandler was in the midst of another postseason thriller against Westview. Farrel and Garretson both remember rain coming down sideways.

Garretson’s son, Darell, was the quarterback of Chandler at the time. The slick conditions made it difficult to get the passing game going. Garretson and Farrel watched Manapua unfold for the first time from the top of a lift in the back of the end zone.

Chandler won 35-34 in double-overtime. It was Aguano’s first playoff win.

“The weather really evened the playing field,” Farrel said. “It was great football. Great playoff football.”

The first time Chandler ran the play was almost its last, as the Wolves were told after the Westview game that it was an illegal formation due to the pre-snap shifts.

Chandler didn’t look into the rule, they had no interest in doing so. They changed the way Manapua was ran.

“We were told it had to do with the receivers starting on the line covered, then shifting to be uncovered,” Garretson said. “All we had to change was where they started in the formation.”

A few years went by before they decided to look into the guidelines of the play. They realized that the original variation of Manapua was, in fact, legal. Thus bringing it back to its original form.

Manapua was only used one more time before last year’s game against Highland.

The Wolves aimed to make a statement on their opening drive against rival Hamilton in 2017. After a score by Brooks, Chandler ran Manapua to go up 8-0 in a game they eventually won 50-14.

It’s a play Chandler always includes in its Thursday walkthrough practices. The Wolves may not always need it, but it’s there if they do.

Last year’s play call was gutsy in a situation that could have ended Chandler’s chance at winning the state title for the third consecutive year. But it was a gamble Aguano and the rest of the team were willing to take.

Highland’s players still think about the play from time-to-time, especially Kingsford. He knows just how close he was to helping his team knock off one of the state’s powerhouse programs.

As he begins his senior season for the Hawks, that play will stick with him. Not as a deterrent, but as motivation. The Hawks pushed Chandler to the brink last season, something most teams haven’t been able to do in the last three years.

They now know what it’s like to play on one of the biggest stages, and they will do what it takes to get back there and go even further in 2019.

“We know what we have to do to get to where we were and farther than that,” Kingsford said. “We just need to come out and do what we are supposed to do. We’re pumped.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at zalvira@timespublications.com and follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.

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