For the fourth time in as many years, Chandler High will contend for a championship at the highest division in football.
This year, however, it won’t be in the 6A Conference. A dominating fourth-quarter performance by Chandler’s defense helped the top-ranked Wolves defeat No. 4 Salpointe Catholic, 24-16, on Saturday night to advance to the Open Division state championship.
“It feels good, but the job is not done yet,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “The goal is to win state. I told the boys this is different than the other championships. It’s more difficult than the previous championships.”
Chandler will take on No. 3 Saguaro, the six-time defending 4A Conference champion, on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 4 p.m. at Sun Devil Stadium. That matchup has been arguably the most sought-after by fans in recent years.
However, there were times throughout the close matchup between Chandler and Salpointe that had those in attendance wondering if the Lancers would be able to dethrone the Wolves.
That all changed in the fourth quarter. Trailing 17-16 with just over 8 minutes to play Salpointe was forced to punt deep in its own territory. The snap sailed over the punter’s head and into the end zone as a scramble for the ball ensued. Eventually, it was Chandler junior defensive end Zion Magalei that came up with the recovery for a touchdown, pushing the Wolves’ lead to eight points.
It was just one of several key plays the Chandler defensive made in the final quarter of play.
“We knew they were a really good team,” Chandler senior linebacker Tate Romney said. “We just brought a good energy and played for each other. We knew we had to get it done because it was win or go home.”
Chandler’s stout defensive line, led by Magalei and fellow junior defensive end Brandon Buckner, put constant pressure on Salpointe sophomore quarterback Treyson Bourget, sacking him on numerous occasions.
A late fumble by Chandler running back Eli Sanders gave Salpointe a chance to tie the game with a score and two-point conversion with just under a minute to play. But two straight sacks followed by a failed lateral as time expired ended the Lancers’ upset bid.
“Our defense played lights out,” Garretson. “You know Bijan is going to get one and same with Ransom. They’re an explosive team, we just managed to hold them back enough.”
Both offenses struggled to find a foothold throughout the game, as they were plagued with several penalties and turnovers. Chandler was without senior running back Dae Dae Hunter, who had suffered a lower leg injury in the quarterfinals against Chaparral.
On the second play of the game, a miscue on the exchange from Chandler junior quarterback Mikey Keene to Sanders gave Salpointe the ball deep in Wolves’ territory. A second fumble, this time by Keene while scrambling on fourth down later in the quarter, resulted in a turnover on downs.
Even with opportunities to capitalize off the turnovers, Salpointe also struggled.
The Lancers were stuffed on the 4-yard line on fourth down by the Chandler defense. After forcing the Wolves to punt, Bourget was picked off by Chandler defensive back Kentrell Williams. That turnover led to the Wolves’ first points of the game in the second quarter, a 29-yard field goal by junior Crew Peterman.
Shortly after, both offenses found a rhythm.
“I think we showed against Hamilton that we are a resilient offense,” Keene said. “The defense had out backs tonight and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”
Salpointe answered Chandler’s field goal with a 68-yard touchdown pass from Bourget to senior athlete and Ohio State commit Lathan Ransom. But a 41-yard run by Chandler running back Jaheim Brown-Taylor on the Wolves’ next possession led to an 11-yard touchdown pass from Keene to senior wideout Jay McEuen.
Salpointe senior running back Bijan Robinson, a University of Texas commit, is widely regarded as one of, if not the best running backs to ever come out of Arizona. He was just 35 yards shy of 7,000 career rushing yards at halftime of Saturday night’s contest.
It didn’t take long for him surpass that milestone.
On Salpointe’s second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Robinson broke loose for a 50-yard touchdown. That would be his only touchdown run of the night, as he finished the final game of his high school career with 119 yards rushing and the score.
“It’s been a blessing,” Robinson said. “Just how hard we work and the love this team has for each other, that’s what is most important. Having 7,000 yards rushing is all because of God, I have to give all glory to him.”
As they did in the second quarter, the Wolves answered Salpointe’s score. Another long drive by the Chandler was capped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass from Keene to junior wideout Jalen Richmond.
It was Keene’s second of two touchdown passes on the night, as the junior finished 21-of-31 for 216 yards and the two touchdowns.
A pair of interceptions by Chandler senior safety Gunner Maldanado stalled Salpointe’s offensive drives and allowed the Wolves’ defensive line to take over and eventually help seal the game.
Chandler will attempt to capture its fourth championship in a row when they face off against Saguaro in two weeks at Sun Devil Stadium. The Sabercats, meanwhile, will hope to win their seventh straight ring.
Advancing to the championship game isn’t uncharted territory for the Chandler senior class, but they admit this one feels different than the rest.
“This one feels better knowing if we win, it’s undeniable we are the best,” Romney said. “It will be fun playing Saguaro. I’ve always wanted to play them and they’ve always wanted to play us.
CHS 0 10 7 7 -- 24
SC 0 6 10 0 -- 16
CHS – Peterman 29 FG, 10:30
SC – Bourget 68 pass to Ransom (Chakraborty kick), 9:53
CHS – Keene 11 pass to McEuen (Peterman kick), 6:44
SC – Robinson 50 run (Chakraborty kick), 11:41
CHS – Keene 16 pass to Richmond (Peterman kick), 9:13
SC – Magalei fumble recovery (Peterman kick), 7:46