The start of the 2020 football season for Chaparral was met with turmoil as the program was forced to cancel its first three games of the season due to COVID-19.
Coach Brent Barnes said the cancellations were a wakeup call of sorts for his team, and motivated them down the stretch to complete the minimum five games to make the postseason. Chaparral did just that and on Saturday afternoon at Desert Vista High School, the Firebirds completed the pandemic shortened season as the 6A Conference champions after beating Highland, 24-14.
“I’m just completely thrilled for our kids,” Barnes said. “Every chance they got to be on our football field for practice, they took full advantage of. I think they learned a lot from what they went through and to see them have the ultimate prize at the end during the most trying and difficult season for everybody, it’s a blessing.”
Chaparral’s ability to slow down Highland’s high-powered offense paid dividends for the Firebirds Saturday afternoon.
Highland senior running back Max Davis, who became the school’s all-time leading rusher in the Hawks’ win over Boulder Creek in the semifinals, was held to 78 yards on the ground and a touchdown — below his typical output of well nearly 100 yards a game.
Chaparral’s defensive line, led by 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior defensive tackle Anthony Lucas, pressured Highland junior quarterback Gage Dayley on several occasions and forced errant throws. Dayley managed to escape pressure at times but was sacked twice by Chaparral linebacker Diego Echavarria and Lucas. The junior finished 14-of-22 for 130 yards and an interception off a tipped pass that ultimately sealed the game.
“We missed on deep shots. We had them and we missed them,” Highland coach Brock Farrel said. “They did enough to throw us off, but I think more so we threw ourselves off. Sometimes you have to get to the championship to learn from those mistakes.
“It’s a great step to get to the championship. We can now hit the reset button but the expectations are the same and the kids are hungry.”
As Chaparral’s defense did to Highland, the Hawks defense also caused headaches for the Firebirds. An equally high-powered offense was limited both on the ground and threw the air.
Chaparral junior quarterback Brayton Silbor made plays when called upon, including a 61-yard pass to wideout Cooper Nemeth in the fourth quarter, but was unable to find the same consistent rhythm he and the rest of the offense had become accustomed to in week’s past. Silbor completed 17-of-24 passes for 160 yards but didn’t find the end zone.
Jared Williams, Chaparral’s senior running back who sat out due to injury in the semifinals, was still less than 100 percent for the title game. He started most of the first quarter but was then held out a majority of the second, returning to the field with just 14 seconds remaining in the half to score from three yards out. It was the first of two touchdowns Williams scored on the day to go along with 40 yards on the ground. His second score, another three-yard run this time out of wildcat formation, extended Chaparral’s lead in the fourth quarter.
“I told him he was going to score the game-winning touchdown. I don’t know if you can call it that, but he had two that were huge,” Barnes said of Williams. “I’m so happy for him. He’s been such a great kid in our program, a great teammate, just a great person.
“For him to still be a big part of this game even though he’s honestly after that first drive, 20 percent, he’s playing on one leg at running back. But just his fight and his will, he wanted to be out there.”
Williams was at just a young age when his dad, Steven, was an assistant under former Chaparral coach and current Tempe Union High School District Athletic Director Dave Huffine when the Firebirds last won a state title in 2011. He still remembers running onto the field and vowing to win another championship for Chaparral.
Despite playing injured, he was able to accomplish his dream.
“I can’t even describe a word for this, it feels amazing,” Williams said. “I wasn’t able to go and do cuts like I used to but my coach trusted me. Even off the ball I couldn’t go full speed but once I got the ball, I knew what I had to do.
“Just having this feeling, it’s so amazing, I’m pumped.”
Highland’s first trip to the state championship game in program history didn’t end the way the Hawks had hoped, but it further proves they are a program on the rise.
Since Farrel took over in 2017, Highland has made the playoffs every year, including the semifinals twice and this year’s title game. The loss only further fuels the fire already billowing around the program.
“This just adds to the fire,” Dayley said. “I love my guys. This was the best senior class. Expect the same thing next year but with a ring. I want one of those before I leave high school.”