Chandler High School’s football program has proven time and time again it is one of the toughest to beat on a weekly basis.
The Wolves were pushed to the breaking point in the Open Division semifinals against Liberty, as it took overtime for Chandler to win. On Saturday night against rival Hamilton in the Open Division State Championship, the Wolves once again found themselves on the opposite end of a potential game-winning score.
With 17 seconds remaining trailing by two points, Hamilton lined up for a 27-yard field goal. The kick sailed wide left, turning the ball over to the Wolves. A kneel down from Chandler senior quarterback Mikey Keene was met with an eruption from the Chandler fans, as the Wolves secured their fifth straight championship and second straight Open Division state title with a 23-21 nail-biting win over Hamilton.
“Five straight feels incredible,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “Having the ability to lead young men two years as a head coach and under Shaun (Aguano) is so special. Words can’t really describe it.”
The decision to go for a game-winning field goal was one Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski stood by after the final buzzer had sounded.
Hamilton was backed up to the 10-yard line after a penalty and with no timeouts, Zdebski worried what a potential sack would do to his team’s chances. After all, Chandler defensive line sacked Hamilton junior quarterback Nicco Marchiol three times on the night, and forced errant throws that resulted in three interceptions.
Marchiol’s legs and short out routes led the Huskies down the field to put them inside Chandler’s 10-yard line, but Zdebski feared a mistake would take away the field goal opportunity.
“I didn’t want to make a mistake,” Zdebski said. “We were thinking one more play until we had that five-yard penalty. We didn’t want to take a chance, we figured we were in the middle of the field and close enough. We couldn’t get it done.”
Chandler made a statement on the opening play from scrimmage as senior running back Eli Sanders burst through an open seam and scored an 80-yard touchdown. The play took the wind out of Hamilton’s sails for a moment before the Huskies were able to bounce back and play as good of a game defensively as they could have against one of the top teams in the nation.
Russell Davis and company on Hamilton’s defensive line pressured Keene on numerous occasions and eliminated any potential home run plays from Sanders or other Chandler backs. The Huskies held Chandler scoreless through the rest of the first quarter and gave up one more touchdown in the first half — a seven-yard pass from Keene to senior tight end Eli Swope.
But Hamilton answered with a touchdown of its own to trim the lead before the half. Marchiol threw his first and only touchdown pass of the game to wideout Christian Anaya, who made a sliding grab in the back of the end zone.
Both teams went scoreless in the third quarter as the two defensive units dug in and allowed little in the way of momentum. Chandler managed to capitalize early in the fourth quarter on a Crew Peterman field goal to extend its lead. On the ensuing possession for Hamilton, Chandler senior linebacker Kyler Orr picked off Marchiol and took it to the one-yard line.
Sanders punched it in on the next play to grow Chandler’s lead.
“We just kept pushing,” said Sanders, who rushed for 131 yards and the two touchdowns. “I had hard, physical rushing yards. That’s all I could really do. To win, it’s just a great feeling. It’s one I’ll never forget.”
Hamilton, however, came right back.
Marchiol led the Huskies down the field and capped off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. After Hamilton’s defense forced a Chandler punt, Marchiol again led his team down the field.
Senior running back Rodney Clemente, who transferred from Chandler before the 2020 season, capped off the drive with a six-yard score. Hamilton’s two-point conversion was ruled short of the goal line, which eventually led to Hamilton’s potential game-winning field goal.
“All this time, even with what was going on in the game, we knew it would start with defense and end with defense,” said Chandler senior defensive end Brandon Buckner, who two sacks on the night. “We knew this would be a dog fight coming in. We are blessed to be crowned as champions.”
Seniors on both sides were brought to tears after the final buzzer sounded.
Hamilton, a team most had written off after down years, once again fell short to its rival. However, the 2021 senior class that helped rebuild the Hamilton program under Zdebski and brought it back to the status as one of the state’s premier programs had plenty to be proud of despite the loss.
Zdebski said his goal when he moved from Michigan to Arizona to take over the Hamilton program was to resurrect it. The senior class helped him accomplish that.
“They stuck around when some people thought this school was down and out,” Zdebski said. “They worked excessively hard. They did a great job.”
Chandler’s seniors who were on varsity as freshman end their playing careers with four state championship rings. They also do so without losing a game in two years.
Garretson acknowledged how special this year’s group of seniors are for all they accomplished both on and off the field.
“They’re so special because they’re internal leaders,” Garretson said. “This is a self-driven team. It’s been a tremendous ride and I love them all.”