Seconds after strong safety Franky Morales intercepted Liberty’s fourth-down heave to the end zone, Chandler players and coaches rushed onto Austin Field in celebration.
But not Kyion Grayes.
The senior wide receiver and future Ohio State Buckeye sat down on the sideline and put his helmet between his legs. He was at a loss for words.
“This is a blessing,” he said.
For most of Saturday night, Chandler’s spot at the top of the Arizona high school hierarchy seemed at risk. The Wolves trailed by two touchdowns at both halftime and the start of the fourth quarter. They committed six turnovers. They had an extra point blocked.
But when Chandler received the ball with 24 seconds left and 30 yards to the end zone, Rick Garretson’s squad did not flinch.
Instead, the Wolves heeded the words of their third-year head coach:
Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
Chandler’s 27-21 victory over Liberty saw late-game heroics from quarterback Blaine Hipa, who found running back Anyale Velazquez for a 10-yard touchdown before taking in a two-point conversion himself to force overtime. Minutes later, tight end Nason Coleman gave the Wolves the lead for good with a one-handed touchdown catch, locking the ball into his right arm as he fell towards the turf. Morales, a senior captain, then picked off the pass that crushed the Lions’ upset bid and booked the Wolves’ ticket to Sun Devil Stadium for the Open Division Championship game against Saguaro.
“It’s football,” Garretson said. “It doesn’t always come out perfect or pretty. The bottom line is, do you have the (win) or not? And we did, so we get to move on.”
Chandler will be making its sixth straight appearance in the state championship game after winning the title in five consecutive seasons.
But for a time, it looked like their postseason aspirations would end at the hands of Liberty.
The Wolves’ opening drive was a balanced offensive attack, gaining 56 yards on the ground and 11 through the air. Despite losing a fumble in the Lions’ end zone, Liberty could not turn the miscue into points. And even though Chandler showcased big plays, like Hipa’s 19-yard run in the first quarter, they struggled to score as well, in part because of turnovers.
After 12 minutes, the score read 0-0. That all changed when Hipa tossed his first interception of the game to safety Jax Stam.
A few plays later, Lions quarterback Navi Bruzon sprinted into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. On the following possession, Chandler’s turnover issue arose again when a fumble by Velazquez was recovered by Liberty’s Gavin Dodge. Quarterback Dom Ochoa, splitting snaps with Bruzon, then found wide receiver Prince Zombo from 10 yards out to make the score 14-0.
The Wolves attempted to score before halftime, but a spike by Hipa to stop the clock on fourth down led to a turnover on downs.
“You don’t see teams winning with all those turnovers,” Coleman said. “The fact that you’re just able to keep your mind straight and just keep pushing through... we all stuck with it.”
Hipa, who finished the game with 300 yards and three touchdowns, came out of the locker room firing, connecting with Grayes and other receivers en route to Liberty territory. He soon found wide receiver Jamere Haskell, who broke a tackle on the right sideline and ran untouched into the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown.
But when Ochoa, who threw for 98 yards, found Braylon Gardner for a 19-yard touchdown to make it 21-7 and Keaton Stam intercepted Hipa on the following drive, the Lions seemed on their way to upsetting one of the state’s top squads.
Yet as the third quarter turned to the fourth, Chandler’s defense rose to the occasion by stopping Ochoa and Bruzon, who ran for 60 yards and threw for 56.
“They make everything work,” Garretson said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without those guys up front.”
A four-yard touchdown run by Velazquez made it a one possession game. However, the Wolves’ deficit remained at eight points due to a blocked extra point.
It seemed that Liberty’s lead would be erased as Chandler’s defense once again stopped the Lions. But after Hipa felt pressure and sent a downfield shot to the end zone, Dodge jumped into the air and snagged his third takeaway of the game.
Even though the Lions punted after a quick three plays, excitement was palpable on the Lions’ sideline, who were less than 30 seconds away from stunning one of Arizona’s best teams.
Hipa had other plans. First, he found wide receiver/athlete Quaron Adams, who finished with six catches for 78 yards, on a big gain. Moments later, he found Velazquez, who outran two defenders and stretched the ball across the goal line for a 10-yard touchdown. Then, after not finding anyone open, he weaved his way through Liberty’s defense for a two-point conversion that evened the score at 21.
“Usually when you have six turnovers, you don’t win any game,” Garretson said. “It goes to show the fortitude of my team and my kids and my coaching staff.”
His play in overtime was even more impressive, finding Coleman in the right corner of the end zone for an impressive one-handed touchdown catch from seven yards out.
“I just saw that it was a good mismatch and also I was hoping Blaine (would) put it up and he did,” Coleman, who finished with four catches for 32 yards, said. “He put it in the perfect spot where I can get it. I’m just glad I made the catch.”
Even though Liberty stuffed a two-point conversion by the Wolves, any last hope of an upset was erased when Morales reeled in his interception, sending his teammates onto the field and the Austin Field stands into excitement.
Next week, the opponent will be familiar, as Chandler beat Saguaro in the inaugural Open Division championship in 2019. The venue will be familiar since the Wolves beat the Sabercats in Sun Devil Stadium. So will the stakes.
Yet, the experience heading into the game will likely be different, as Chandler came seconds away from losing one of the most impressive streaks in the state on Saturday.
“All the preparation that we go through, how we persevere through everything in the struggle,” Morales said. “It doesn’t matter the outcome of the game in the beginning. It’s all about the ending, how you finish.”