The 10 weeks leading up to Friday night’s matchup between Hamilton and Chandler in the Battle of Arizona Avenue set up one of the most highly-anticipated meetings between the two schools in the history of the rivalry.
Chandler entered the Week 11 game as the top-ranked team in 6A and the Open Division. Hamilton, who won just three games in 2018, went in ranked second overall in the conference and No. 5 in the Open rankings.
It was an emotionally charged game from start to finish, but Chandler ultimately prevailed. The Wolves defeated the Huskies, 42-38, in front of a packed house to secure the No. 1 seed in the Open Division playoffs.
“It feels great,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “I've got a great group of coaches and one thing I love about my players is that they embrace each other. It wasn't just because it was the Hamilton game. They come together every game and I'm really proud of them for that."
Like meetings between the two rivals in the past, the game came down to the final quarter.
Chandler faced a 14-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter. Up until that point, Hamilton’s defense was dominant, forcing multiple punts by the Wolves and not allowing them to find a rhythm offensively.
That is, until Chandler running backs Dae Dae Hunter and Eli Sanders took over.
Hunter found the end zone from 54 yards out to pull the Wolves within one score of Hamilton. A few plays later after Chandler’s defense blocked a Husky punt, Sanders took it in from 15 yards out to tie the game.
"It felt amazing," Sanders said. "Just to do it for the team. Everyone gave it their all. The sideline stayed into it, the fans stayed into it, it really helped us."
Hamilton kicker Colin Fuller managed to give the Huskies the lead once again on a 25-yard field goal with just over 2 minutes to play. But Chandler came right back.
Junior quarterback Mikey Keene found a rhythm through the air, finding sophomore wideout Kyion Grayes on fourth-down conversion, as well as senior Jalen Richmond to set up Chandler at the Huskies’ 1-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game. On the next play, Hunter took it up the middle for the go-ahead score.
"I've got a coaching staff that has been in those types of situations before and that's huge to draw from," Garretson said. "We made the necessary adjustments and we always talk about finish. Tonight, we finished."
Hamilton had just 22 seconds to move down the field for the game-winning score. Senior quarterback Nick Arvay aired it out deep in Chandler’s territory and junior wideout Brady Shough managed to come down with it as time expired after it was tipped. However, a roughing the passer call gave Hamilton one last chance during an untimed down from the 2-yard line.
Arvay’s pass fell incomplete, securing the win for Chandler.
"I was scared. I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous," said Chandler senior linebacker Malik Reed, a Wisconsin-commit. "We pulled through. It just felt great to get the win."
Chandler’s defense struggled to slow down Hamilton’s offense throughout the first half. The Huskies moved the ball with ease both on the ground with senior running back Gabriel Armenta and through the air behind the arm of Arvay.
Hamilton’s 28 first-half points tied the most allowed by Chandler’s defense all season.
But in the locker room at halftime, adjustments were made as the Wolves held the Huskies to just 10 more points throughout the game.
"We just came into the locker room and picked it up," Reed said. "We didn't want to let them score again. We changed up the scheme and said it was our half. We came out there and the offense did their thing and the defense locked it down."
Arvay finished 16-of-29 for 184 yards and three touchdowns, two of which to senior wideout and Colorado-commit Brenden Rice. He also had another touchdown on the ground.
"He's been a standout player all year," Zdebski said of Arvay.
Chandler’s offense struggled to find a consistent rhythm through the first three quarters of the game against a stingy Hamilton defense.
Long drives would often stall due to punts or turnovers, one of which a fumble returned 67 yards for a Hamilton touchdown by senior defensive end Alex Wielert in the second quarter.
But despite the struggles early on, Chandler picked it up when it mattered most. Keene finished 16-of-27 for 262 yards and one touchdown. Meanwhile, Hunter had 186 yards rushing for four touchdowns. Sanders added 37 more yards on the ground for the Wolves and the game-tying score.
"Me and Dae Dae are unstoppable," Sanders said. "He's a great runner, an amazing back. I look up to Dae Dae. I admire his way of running."
The loss to Chandler likely won’t impact the chances of Hamilton (8-2, 2-2) making it into the Open Division playoffs. But the Huskies will start the postseason on the road on Nov. 15.
"We played for a full 48 minutes," Zdebski said. "That's what we expect from them. We came out here to win the game and we came up two-and-a-half yards short. We've got the two weeks scripted out so we will follow the plan and see where we land tomorrow morning."
Meanwhile, Chandler (10-0, 3-0) is guaranteed to host the No. 8 ranked team in the Open Division, which will be revealed Saturday morning during the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s bracket release show.
The Open Division playoffs begin on Friday, Nov. 15, one week after the start of the 2A-6A tournaments.
"This was a great night of high school football," Garretson said. "I'm really proud of my boys and I know they're looking forward to getting that week off before we get after it again."
CHS - 7 7 7 21 -- 42
HHS - 14 14 7 3 -- 38
HHS - Arvay 18 pass to Rice (Kofahl kick), 6:17
HHS - Arvay 44 run (Kofahl kick), :55
CHS - Hunter 54 run (Peterman kick), :36
HHS - Arvay 50 pass to Rice (Kofahl kick), 11:27
CHS - Keene 20 pass to Collison (Peterman kick), 4:32
HHS - Wielert 67 fumble recovery (Kofahl kick), :26
CHS - Hunter 4 run (Peterman kick), 8:09
HHS - Arvay 5 pass to Shough (Kofahl kick), 4:35
CHS - Hunter 54 run (Peterman kick), 10:42
CHS - Sanders 15 run (Peterman kick), 8:26
HHS - Fuller 25 field goal, 2:32
CHS - Hunter 1 run (Peterman kick), :22