Chandler’s identity hasn’t changed drastically from the last five seasons when the Wolves won state championships.
But there are some differences. Typically a smash mouth team from start to finish, it’s taken the Wolves some time to get going on both sides of the ball in all four of their games this season. It’s led to close halftime scores in every game. But as has become a common theme, Chandler typically has found a rhythm in the second half.
That was the case Friday night in the Wolves’ 41-21 win over Liberty in a rematch of last year’s Open Division semifinal overtime thriller. It also marked Chandler’s 40th straight win.
“We worked hard in the offseason on conditioning and that shows in our second half performances,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “And to have the ability for our defense to give us the ball, score, give us the ball, score and defend against coach (Colin) Thomas’ team, that isn’t easy to do. But our kids did well and I’m happy with the outcome.”
Chandler’s first two offensive possessions ended in three and outs, with just two total yards gained. Liberty’s defense, led by senior safety Jax Stam, was nearly perfect against Chandler on its first two drives. The momentum from defense carried over to the Liberty offense led by junior quarterback Dom Ochoa.
Ochoa led the Lions down the field with ease, finding Johnathan Kennedy for a 21-yard touchdown in the middle of the field. It was a quick strike from a Lions’ team that said the Chandler game was circled since last year’s heartbreaking loss. And it was about as good of a start as one could get against the Wolves.
However, Liberty’s lead didn’t last long.
Senior quarterback Blaine Hipa, playing in just his third game in two years after moving from Hawaii this offseason, started to put on a show. He led the Wolves on a 98-yard drive that was capped off by a 2-yard run by sophomore running back Ca’lil Valentine. It was the first of two touchdowns on the night for the sophomore, the second a 61-yard run to open the second half. He finished with 122 yards rushing on 18 carries and the two scores. But his career night was only part of the impressive offensive display by Chandler.
“Blaine is one of the best quarterbacks in Arizona,” Garretson said. “I don’t talk about it, but people are going to find out. I just sit back and watch what he is able to do. Each game he is going to get better and better and we are looking forward to see where he is going to end.”
A quick stop by Chandler’s defense gave the Wolves the ball back early in the game. Hipa once again went to work. He connected with tight end Nason Coleman, playing in just his second game after an ACL injury before the 2020 season, for a 16-yard score.
Late in the second quarter with Chandler trailing by a touchdown, Hipa connected with Coleman again. The senior quarterback escaped pressure and heaved it toward the end zone where Coleman managed to out jump three Liberty defenders to come down with it in the back of the end zone.
The score not only tied the game heading into the locker room, it gave Chandler the momentum it needed for the second half.
“It wasn’t planned,” Coleman said of the hail mary pass. “But it was good. It worked out. Second half all we needed was one stop and then we went off of that drive.”
Liberty’s offense had success moving the ball against the Wolves’ stout defense. Running back Zach Wallace and quarterbacks Ochoa and Navi Bruzon combined for 137 rushing yards. Ochoa was 8 of 14 through the air for 150 yards and three touchdowns before he exited the game in the third quarter and didn’t return.
Bruzon took over and finished 9 of 15 for 107 yards and an interception, which came late in the game. But for the fourth straight week, Chandler held its opponent scoreless in the final two quarters of play.
Liberty still saw some success, but that quickly went away after getting flagged seven times in the fourth quarter — four of which on one of Chandler’s offensive drives. The other three came at crucial moments where Liberty could have pulled within a score with manageable time on the clock. But Chandler’s defense created more headaches for the Lions.
“This defense leads us, we get out energy from them,” Hipa said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Hipa and the Chandler offense took advantage of its defensive play. He connected with senior athlete Quaron Adams on a 50-yard catch and run that increased Chandler’s lead to two touchdowns. He also led them down the field — with the help of penalties on Liberty — late in the fourth and set up senior backup quarterback KJ Cooper for a 2-yard touchdown run.
It was arguably Hipa’s best performance since arriving to Chandler, as he finished 27 of 39 for 360 yards and the three touchdowns. He connected with nine different receivers. Three of them — Adams, Coleman and senior Jamere Haskell — had 60 or more receiving yards.
“(Liberty) did everything we thought they would,” Hipa said. “We just went into the locker room at half and realized it was there, we just had to execute. We were able to do that which is why we got two touchdowns in 4 minutes. This was a good team win.”
Garretson is the first to admit his team still isn’t where they want to be. But they’re still without key pieces that will make them better on both sides of the ball, including star wideout Kyion Grayes, who figures to be sidelined until at least Week 8 with an elbow injury.
But week-by-week Chandler continues to find a rhythm and improve. For now, as the 4-0 Wolves look ahead to Pinnacle (1-2) next Friday, that’s all they can ask for.
“We’re not where we want to be but we are getting there,” Garretson said. “We just have to prepare. Next week is Pinnacle. Week after is Perry. We just go week-by-week, day-by-day. We grind. We don’t talk about it, we just do it and that shows on Friday nights.”