High school football programs from Chandler and Scottsdale will headline the inaugural Open Division playoff when it kicks off in two weeks.
Chandler, Hamilton, Saguaro, Horizon and Chaparral make up five of the eight teams in the Open Division, which pins the top eight programs from the 4A, 5A and 6A conferences against one another in a state-championship bracket. Teams are chosen based on a formula used by the AIA, which takes into a team’s record and strength of schedule to compile the rankings.
The final rankings were released Saturday morning in Tempe during the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s bracket release show.
“You have to earn each win now that it’s one-and-done,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “If you don’t bring your A-game, you’re going to be out. My staff knows how to prepare for two weeks.
“We will have those kids ready.”
The Wolves, who defeated rival Hamilton Friday night in thrilling fashion to finish 10-0 on the year, are the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
It’s the second straight season Chandler will enter the postseason as the top-ranked team. Last year, the Wolves were No. 1 in the 6A Conference tournament and ran the table to win their third straight championship.
Chandler will open up the tournament on Friday, Nov. 15 against Chaparral, who used a last-second touchdown pass from senior and Ohio State-bound quarterback Jack Miller to defeat Liberty, securing the Firebirds spot in the Open playoffs.
“Chaparral is a great team,” Garretson said. “We’ve played them quite a few times in the passing tournaments so we are a little familiar with them in that.
“It’s going to be a great game and we are proud to represent the Premier Region in the super-8 as the 1-seed.”
Hamilton entered last night’s contest against Chandler as the No. 5 team in the Open rankings.
Despite nearly knocking off their rival, the Huskies fell two spots to No. 7 and will face a tough task in the opening round as they will travel to Peoria to take on the three-time defending 5A champion Centennial, the second-ranked team in the Open.
“We feel good about everything we’ve done,” Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski said. “We’ve improved throughout the season. We’ve learned from all of our setbacks and we are excited to move forward.”
After winning just three games in 2018, Zdebski’s first year, the Huskies look to be back to their old ways. Led by a plethora of senior talent on both sides of the ball, Hamilton has been dominant at times this season.
The Huskies only losses this year have come against Brophy, the No. 2 seed in the 6A Conference tournament and Chandler on a last-second touchdown Friday night. Zdebski recognizes the challenge ahead against Centennial, who has been a perennial power in the West Valley for years under coach Richard Taylor.
“I know they’re well-coached and they get better as the year goes on,” Zedebski said of Centennial. “We are excited to be in the open-8 and we are excited to go to Centennial. It’s going to be a great crowd.
“Playing in that type of environment is great for your kids because it rewards them for their hard work. We just need to prepare these two weeks and put a good product on the field.”
Saguaro, whose only loss this season came against California power Cathedral Catholic (San Diego, Calif) back in August, finished as the No. 3 seed in the Open Division bracket.
The Sabercats will take on fellow Scottsdale-area school Horizon in the opening round on Nov. 15. The Huskies finished as the 7-seed in the Open Division. It will be the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
“We just wanted to have a high seed and have a home playoff game,” Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said. “We are excited to be at home and it will be an exciting matchup against Horizon. A lot of our kids know each other and we’ve never played, so that will be fun.”
The Sabercats have been dominant at the 4A level, winning the last six conference titles.
Saguaro last lost to an in-state school in 2015, when the Sabercats fell to Centennial and Pinnacle, who played a division up. Mohns regularly schedules out-of-state opponents early on in the season. In recent years, Saguaro has faced Liberty (Henderson, Nev.), East (Salt Lake City, Utah) and Serra (Gardena, Calif.) and most recently, Cathedral Catholic, among others.
Mohns believes matchups with out-of-state competition of that caliber helps prepare his team for the grind of the season. That remains especially true this year with the installment of the Open Division.
“We weren’t very comfortable being uncomfortable. We really played out of character in that game and against Chaparral in the first half,” Mohns said. “When you don’t get tested, you get comfortable and you just think you’re going to show up and beat teams.
“Those games prepare you to get in a dog fight and help you become a better team. That’s why we schedule those games.”
Salpointe Catholic (4) from Tucson and Pinnacle (5) also made the Open Division bracket after finishing a combined 17-2 this season. Salpointe Catholic was the second-ranked team for several weeks before the final rankings came out, but a canceled game likely made the Lancers drop to No. 4 as they only played nine games.
Final Open Division rankings
1. Chandler (10-0)
2. Centennial (9-1)
3. Saguaro (9-1)
4. Salpointe Catholic (9-0)
5. Pinnacle (8-2)
6. Horizon (9-1)
7. Hamilton (8-2)
8. Chaparral (8-2)