There was once a point during his high school football career that Eli Sanders aimed to be the best running back to ever come out of the Mountain Pointe program.
But nearly two years and a transfer to Chandler later, his mindset of chasing personal success has changed. Now, he aims to do what he can to help the team succeed as a unit.
“I think you just mature and your focus changes,” said Sanders, who will enter his senior year with the Wolves in the fall. “I just want to be the best person and teammate I can be for the team. Whether it be blocking, receiving or running. I want to help the team succeed.”
Sanders transferred to Chandler after his sophomore year. He spent one season at the varsity level for Mountain Pointe, and quickly showed his ability to impact the outcome of games with his combination of speed and strength out of the backfield.
He spent a majority of the 2018 season as the backup to 1,000-yard rusher Jakim McKinney. But often got the chance to showcase his talent. His breakout performance came in the final game of the regular season against Corona del Sol, in which he rushed for 171 yards and three touchdowns.
That, plus two additional postseason games, helped Sanders finish his sophomore campaign with 878 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns. But in January after his family moved, he enrolled at Chandler.
“We moved into the area for Chandler and it was the perfect opportunity,” Sanders said. “They made me feel at home right when I got there. They pushed me to be the best player I can be.”
Chandler coach Rick Garretson, who had just taken over as head coach for Shaun Aguano after he departed for Arizona State, already knew the level of talent his program was getting in Sanders.
“He played against us in the quarterfinals when he was with Mountain Pointe and he earned every yard that game,” Garretson said. “He’s just a really good kid. He takes everything on the field and in the classroom serious, he’s respectful, he has really good parents, he fit in well with our program right away.”
Garretson and running backs coach Eric Richardson immediately divulged a plan to keep Sanders involved so he would be ready come time he was eligible after sitting the first five games of the season.
Sanders worked in with the first-team offense during spring practices and throughout the summer. By the time the program went up to NAU for its football camp, he had already become comfortable with Chandler’s offense. He continued to work with the first-team offense during regular-season practices despite not yet being eligible for games. On a regular basis, he went up against Chandler’s starting defense, widely regarded as the best in the state last year.
Sanders said going up against top-tier talent every day prepared him for when his number was called in the sixth game of the season. By then, he had already established himself as part of a three, sometimes four-man rotation in the backfield.
Against Perry on Oct. 4, he was finally unleashed. Sanders recorded 11 carries for 184 yards and three touchdowns in his first game of the 2019 season. He also had one receiving touchdown.
“We let him loose,” Garretson said. “We had seen what he is able to do in practice, so we knew what to expect from him. He’s a practice player, which you have to be when you go good-on-good, ones-on-ones every day.”
Sanders still remembers his first touchdown with Chandler in great detail.
“It was an inside run and we had our guard pulling through,” Sanders said. “I saw the gap and accelerated. I felt like it relieved some stress. It felt amazing.”
The performance set the stage for what would be an impressive season on the ground for Sanders, as he rushed for 643 yards and 10 touchdowns while sharing the workload. But most importantly, he helped lead Chandler to the inaugural Open Division title against 4A powerhouse Saguaro.
It was the Wolves fourth straight championship.
“Winning a championship was always a goal for me,” Sanders said. “It was always something I wanted and hoped I could do. When I did it with Chandler, it took my breath away. I was just so happy.”
With the coronavirus pandemic bringing all schools to a halt for the remainder of the year, Sanders has spent time working out with teammates in small groups. He regularly runs routes with Chandler quarterback Mikey Keene and wideouts Jalen Richmond and Kyion Grayes.
He is also at tight end Eli Swope’s house on a daily basis using his home gym. His offseason has also been met with an uptick in his recruiting.
Sanders’ received his first scholarship offer from the University of Nevada on Feb. 21. Since then, he’s received offers from all three Arizona universities, Boise State, Idaho, New Mexico State, Dartmouth and Tulane.
Sanders hopes and expects more offers will come in. But his main focus is doing everything in his power to help Chandler capture its fifth straight title and second straight Open Division championship next season to conclude his high school career.
“I want to do everything in my power to help others and improve my game,” Sanders said. “We all just need to stay together as a unit and don’t let anyone come in between us.”