As Chandler’s head football coach Rick Garretson stood in front of his team after their semifinal victory over Salpointe Catholic, the passion could be heard in his voice.
“It’s hard to get championships,” Garretson said. “It’s even harder to go undefeated, I told you that. It’s even harder to win it four times.
“But I couldn’t ask for a better group of warriors or a coaching staff.”
Playing for a championship isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Wolves, they’ve done it the past three seasons and four times since 2014. Though each season, Chandler entered the title game with at least one loss.
This year, however, the Wolves are chasing their first undefeated season.
“It feels good, but the job is not done yet,” Garretson said after his team’s win against Salpointe. “I told the boys this is different than the other championships. It’s more difficult than the previous championships.”
Chandler’s four previous state titles all came under former head coach Shaun Aguano, who left after last season to take coach running backs at Arizona State. Aguano’s coaching staff at Chandler came together and agreed they would support whoever applied and was hired to take over the program.
The decision to stay together after Garretson was named head coach has been key to the Wolves’ success. They haven’t skipped a beat, especially on defense.
This year’s Chandler team might have the best defensive unit in the history of the program. Led by senior linebackers Malik Reed, a Wisconsin commit, Tate Romney and senior safety and Northwestern commit Gunner Maldanado, the Wolves have caused havoc for opposing offenses on several occasions throughout their dominating run this season.
Romney and Reed lead the team with 190 combined tackles, including 24 for a loss. The two also have nine sacks on the year, while Maldanado has a team-high seven interceptions.
But it’s not just the seniors getting it done for Chandler. Junior defensive end Brandon Buckner, a three-star recruit in next year’s class, leads the Chandler defense with 14 sacks on the year. Fellow junior defensive end Zion Magalei, who had a key fumble recovery in the end zone for the Wolves against Salpointe, has 10 sacks of his own.
“They’re the energizers,” Garretson said of his defense. “They all put in a lot of time and a lot of work.”
On offense, junior quarterback Mikey Keene has led the way along with a slew of talented running backs. Keene’s completed nearly 75 percent of his passes this season and has thrown for 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions. His ability to pick apart opposing secondaries opened up Chandler’s ground game early on in the year, led by senior Dae Dae Hunter, who transferred into the program from Colorado this season.
Hunter leads the team with 1,469 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns. He had just one carry against Salpointe as he dealt with a lower leg injury, but the combination of senior Jaheim Brown-Taylor, who battled injuries himself this season, and juniors Nicolas Nesbitt and Eli Sanders helped Chandler control the clock when it took the lead in the third quarter despite struggling early on.
“I think we showed against Hamilton that we are a resilient offense,” Keene said after the win over Salpointe. “The defense always has our backs and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”
Chandler’s matchup with Saguaro not only brings numerous future Division I talent on both teams together on the same field, but it presents a contest between two of the most dominant programs in recent years.
It’s one that has both sides eager to prove themselves on the biggest stage in the Open Division. Chandler aims to make a statement playing in the 6A Conference, while Saguaro wants to prove classification doesn’t matter.
“I can’t wait, I can’t wait,” Keene said. “That’s all I have to say about it. They have a lot of great players and a great coaching staff.
“This is what we waited for, we wanted to be playing on Dec. 7 at ASU.”