It was billed as arguably the biggest game in the history of high school football in Arizona.
Top-ranked Chandler, the winner of the last three 6A Conference titles matched up against No. 3 Saguaro, the six-time defending 4A Conference champion. Fans packed Sun Devil Stadium Saturday evening to see history be made, and both teams delivered.
A three-touchdown Chandler lead quickly dwindled away in the second half, but it was the Wolves who hung on to beat Saguaro, 42-35, to become the first ever Arizona Open Division state champions.
“This is what we worked for,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “I can’t ask for anything more. I love my staff, I love my kids, I love my community. Chandler was out in force tonight.”
Chandler running back Dae Dae Hunter missed the Wolves’ semifinal game against Salpointe Catholic with an ankle injury. But he quickly proved he was at full strength on Chandler’s first offensive possession. The senior broke free up the middle for a 71-yard run that took the life out of the Saguaro defense.
Two plays later, junior quarterback Mikey Keene capped off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
“Right then and there, at that moment, we knew we had it in the bag,” Hunter said. “We knew we could compete with anybody. We knew we were the best. From going into the game and throughout it we believed that, and we came out as state champions.”
The fast start by Chandler seemed to have a lasting effect on Saguaro’s defense, which gave up an 18-yard touchdown pass from Keene to sophomore wideout Kyion Grayes on the Wolves’ next offensive possession.
From there, Chandler’s defense took over. On Saguaro’s ensuing drive, senior quarterback Tyler Beverett’s pass was tipped by Chandler defensive end Zion Magalei into the hands of his teammate, Brandon Buckner, who then walked into the end zone 3 yards away.
In less than 6 minutes into the first quarter, Chandler had already built to a 21-point lead.
“We got after it,” Garretson said. “When it comes down to it, I block you and I throw, I run and I tackle. Player ‘A’ has to beat player ‘B.’ That’s what we did tonight.”
Saguaro did, however, manage to get on the board after a big hit from defensive back Jacobe Covington forced a Chandler fumble. From there, senior Kelee Ringo took it in from 19 yards out to put the Sabercats on the board.
But it wasn’t enough. Just before the end of the first half, Keene and Grayes connected once again, this time for a 22-yard touchdown that gave Chandler a 28-7 lead at the half. As rain started to fall during halftime at Sun Devil Stadium, most fans headed for the upper concourse to stay dry while watching the remainder of the game.
Some, however, headed for the exits.
“For a while there I thought, ‘man, people are going to be asking for a refund,’” Mohns said. “I wish we wouldn’t have started as slow as we did but I’m proud of the way we battled back in the second half.”
Saguaro cut into Chandler’s lead with an 8-yard run by senior Will Shaffer in the third quarter. But even as the defense began forcing the Wolves to punt, they still had trouble containing Hunter. The senior transfer from Colorado broke free for a 74-yard touchdown with just over 8 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Hunter would score once more on the night, a 4-yard run that ultimately helped Chandler clinch the victory after two scores by Saguaro to trim the lead. The Sabercats cut Chandler’s lead to just 7 points late in the game after a 1-yard run by Shaffer – his third touchdown of the night.
But an onside kick recovery by Chandler ended the game.
“This has always been a dream of mine,” Hunter said. “At the beginning of high school, I never thought I would win a state championship but here I am. What else can you ask for?”
Hunter rushed 24 times for 247 yards and two touchdowns against Saguaro. Keene completed 18 of his 28 passes for 186 yards and three total touchdowns of his own.
It was a dominating performance by Chandler as a whole, as it put up 521 yards of total offense.
“I think we made a statement that we are the best team in the state,” Keene said. “It feels amazing. All of our hard work paid off.”
But even with the staggering numbers against them, the Sabercats still proved they belonged atop the state rankings. Saguaro put up 391 total yards of offense against Chandler, and ultimately had a chance to send the game to overtime had the onside kick gone their way.
Beverett threw for 230 yards and ran for 103 more, while defensive end Quinton Summerville and the rest of the Saguaro front-seven wreaked havoc at times on Chandler’s stout offensive line.
Both teams proved they deserved to be in that position. Both teams put an exclamation point on what was a historic season for Arizona high school football.
“There’s nothing wrong with losing to a team like Chandler,” Mohns said. “Obviously, it’s hard watching teams you played and beat run off the field with a trophy. But I think our state needs to embrace that the Open Division is the standard.”