A nationally-televised high school football game between two big-school powers. An overflow crowd coming with hundreds more possibly being turned away.
A 40-year football coach ready to give up the big headset at season’s end who’s never beaten the newer neighborhood school in 13 meetings.
Each team has arguably the best player in Arizona.
Each team sees a state championship in its near future.
Each team’s coach played and graduated from the same high school (St. Mary’s), albeit years apart.
One team has won two titles and 31 total games since its last loss. The other had its victory in this series wrapped up in 2009, only to lose its grip in the final minute and lose on the game’s final play.
All of this backdrop, banter and buildup for a possible dress rehearsal?
It’s possible. Both locker rooms love this annual matchup, but among the frosty realities of Friday night is that this is only Week 6 of the regular season. The winner remains in first place in the Fiesta Region — either alone or tied with Red Mountain — but the loser may get another shot during the playoffs (the two teams met again in the 5A Division I state semifinals last year).
“If we play them, I’d rather play them in the finals,” Hamilton coach Steve Belles said. “Hopefully it’ll play out that way if it comes down to it. That would be nice. But we both have to get into and win through the playoffs, and I think we all know there are no guarantees.”
No one knows this better than the Wolves (4-1, 2-0 Fiesta Region), who had this meeting won last season if not for an out-of-bounds run, onside kick and scrambling touchdown pass at the horn as Hamilton scored 14 of its 21 fourth-quarter points in the final two minutes to win, 24-20.
“We’ve had several great games, but I’m tired of coming out on the wrong end,” Chandler coach Jim Ewan said. “That part is getting old. Now, I’m an old guy and not just for selfish reasons, but there’s a lot of people around here who’ve worked hard and supported us for years who deserve to see a win.”
Except for the dynamic Malcolm Holland — who transferred from Hamilton to Chandler and is back at Hamilton this season — both teams have undergone significant changes due to graduation.
But the leaders and reminders of the thrills or spills from last year are back. Guys like Brett Hundley and Michael Okonkwo for Chandler; Kyren Poe, Christian Westerman Jr., Tyler Johnstone and Tyler Rutt for the Huskies.
Hundley incited the most fear this week. The UCLA-bound dual-threat quarterback is viewed as Chandler’s best chance for winning one in this rivalry, and it didn’t happen last year.
That only makes for more anxiety, as Belles was asked about whether Hamilton could assign a “spy” to prevent Hundley from doing unilateral damage through the air (1,365 yards, 14 TD, 1 INT) and with his legs (487 yards, 3 TD).
“I’d like to put 11 spies on him and 11 other guys to play defense,” Belles said. “He’s a man playing amongst boys right now, but you can’t let him do that. You have to neutralize him. You’re not going to stop him. He’s too good.”
Ewan is done head coaching at the end of this season, and though he’s talked about hanging around coaching on a smaller scale as an assistant, he knows outsiders will view much of his otherwise-successful tenure at Chandler (fair or unfair) based on whether he could win the proverbial “big one.”
That means either beating Hamilton, winning a state championship, or both.
“We’re trying to find the line between reality and not open the door for any doubt,” Ewan said. “We should have beaten them last year but you can’t change history, and push came to shove.
“The last two years walking on the field Friday nights I really thought we’d get them both times. I really did. Hopefully coming so close and letting it slip through our hands, we’ll close it out this year.”