Chandler’s 2017 title defense hasn’t been easy.
Early in the season, the Wolves suffered two loses – and more than a handful of key injuries – to drop them down the state rankings to a No. 3 seed entering the playoffs. Last week, Chandler was forced into a 77-52 dual with Phoenix Pinnacle, a game that was in doubt until well into the second half.
Even in Friday night’s semi-final meeting with No. 7 Mesa Red Mountain, dynamic running back duo Drake Anderson and DeCarlos Brooks were kept quiet, and Chandler was protecting a narrow 9-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
But four forced turnovers and five Gunner Romney touchdown catches later, the Wolves are headed back to the AIA 6A State Championship Game after catching fire down the stretch Friday night en route to a 51-10 hammering of the Mountain Lions.
“It’s amazing because we front-loaded our schedule, and we knew what we were getting into [this season],” Wolves coach Shaun Aguano said. “Our coaches evaluated, got all our guys back [healthy] and our kids are doing a great job.”
Red Mountain hung around early in the neutral-site game staged, which was staged in Chandler at Hamilton High School. After Chandler scored on its opening drive, a 17-yard touchdown pass from Jacob Conover to Romney, the Mountain Lions defense held the Wolves to a punt and field goal on their next two drives.
Red Mountain’s offense even crossed midfield twice in their first three drives before stalling and punting on both times.
But in a four-play stretch minutes before halftime, Chandler blew the game open.
First, Conover and Romney hooked up – again – on a 71-yard bomb down the sideline, the biggest play of Romney’s 8-catch, 224-yard performance.
“It was supposed to be a handoff,” said Romney, a BYU football commit. “Jacob audibled out of it, called a hot route and hit me right in stride.”
The Mountain Lions had a big return on the ensuing kickoff, but were marched backwards 15-yards thanks to a sideline interference penalty. On the first play of the drive, running back Alejandro Lujan rumbled for a 24-yard gain, but coughed up the ball as he was tackled.
The fumble gave Chandler the ball back in Red Mountain territory, and on the first play of the drive Conover and Romney connected. Again. This time, Romney was left wide open in the end zone for a 45-yard strike, swelling Chandler’s lead to 23-0.
Against a school like Chandler, overcoming critical mistakes like that is near-impossible.
“Anytime our defense gets turnovers and gets our offense back the ball, teams are going to be in trouble,” Aguano said.
Before the end of the half, Chandler forced two more turnovers off a reeling Red Mountain offense. All of the Mountain Lions’ early momentum evaporated into the cool autumn air before halftime.
“It really changed the momentum of the game,” said Chandler senior defensive back Bryce Jackson, who created one of the four takeaways with a second quarter interception. “We got our offense the ball position they needed to score and just keep putting it on them and wear Red Mountain down.”
Chandler added to its lead again at the end of the second quarter, again taking advantage of a turnover-induced short field. On a 4th-and-10 from the Lions’ 12-yard-line, Conover fired a quick slant across the middle. Romney was waiting, using his 6-foot-2 frame to shield his defender from the ball while hauling in his fourth touchdown catch.
“With their schemes, we had a pretty solid game plan coming in,” Romney said, adding that he had expected to have a big game against the Lions’ defense.
It might have been a much different – and closer game – without him.
“Red Mountain was stout up front,” Aguano said. “We had to take advantage of passing the ball and that opened up a little bit. Gunner one-on-one with anybody is tough. I thought he ran incredible routes and has done an incredible job.”
Added Conover: “They stopped the run really well, they schemed for that. They knew Drake and DeCarlos could gash them. That opened the passing game.”
Conover, a 3-star prospect with college offers from Alabama and Arizona among others, finished the night 365 yards through the air and 7 touchdowns. In the second half, he found Romney (47 yards), Jarick Caldwell (51 yards) and Brayden Liebrock (5 yards) for scores.
After the game, he too acknowledged how difficult this year’s title defense has been.
“I think it shows the dynamic of the team and the depth we have,” he said. “Guys, when the starters were hurt, stepped up and played phenomenal.”
Getting back to the brink of a championship has been a team effort for Chandler. Conover’s key for the title game followed the same script:
“Stay focused and play like a team.”
The same simple plan that paid off on Friday night.
“Our defense played phenomenal, lights out,” Conover said. “All those turnovers and stops, we knew we had to capitalize.”
The Wolves did, giving them a date with Gilbert Perry – who knocked off Phoenix Mountain Pointe 56-31 in the other 6A semi-final – in two weeks and a chance to deliver the school consecutive state championships for the first time ever.