The Highland Hawks football team navigated through one of the state’s toughest schedules during the 2020 COVID season with few wounds from top programs.
The Hawks fell to Open Division champion Chandler, runner-up Hamilton and a Queen Creek squad many believed to be a contender in the state’s premier playoff bracket. Highland entered the 6A playoffs and went on to knock off Casteel and Boulder Creek in thrilling fashion to make the championship game.
But that, however, is where the Hawks’ run came to an end against Chaparral in a 24-14 loss. Now six months later, the sour taste from that loss in the title game remains. But head coach Brock Farrel believes their internal love for the game will lead to redemption faster than a bitter feeling.
“I’m a firm believer that internal passion and love for the game and your friends will drive you further than embarrassment and losses,” Farrel said. “Those things are fleeting and short-lived. They’re like bottle rockets on the Fourth of July. They go up and explode and then that’s it.”
Highland capped off its spring football season at the Gotta Believe Athletic Club’s annual 7-on-7 tournament held in Glendale on Saturday, May 29. The Hawks, led by soon-to-be three-year starter Gage Dayley at quarterback, lost in the quarterfinals.
Dayley, who threw for 2,102 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, said it was a good way to measure where his team stacks up to others. Especially given the amount of talent Highland had to replace from last year’s team.
Max Davis, the school’s all-time leading rusher, graduated after a record-breaking season. Ammon Allen, who emerged as a two-way threat also graduated alongside fellow defensive captain Kam Cullimore, one of the state’s most underrated and under recruited linebackers.
But make no mistake, just like it has every year since Farrel took over the program in 2017, Highland has reloaded on both sides of the ball.
“We have four returning linemen, and we have guys like Hunter Stewart and Ethan Svoboda,” Dayley said. “Some of our running backs will have to step up and learn the varsity playbook and what it takes to play at this level. We have the talent to compete.”
One of Highland’s key pieces this season will be at receiver. Kaimana Hanohano, a soon-to-be senior who recently transferred from Red Mountain, figures to be one of Dayley’s top targets in the fall when he becomes eligible.
Due to the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s transfer rule, he will have to sit the first half of Highland’s season. He will miss key matchups against Boulder Creek — a rematch of last year’s semifinals — and Pinnacle. But he will be available for Highland’s gauntlet of games in the back half of the season, when the Hawks face the likes of Perry, Basha, Hamilton, Chandler and Casteel.
Hanohano said the transition from Red Mountain to Highland has been smooth as he has been welcomed by the team and community. Not only does he bring length to the offense with his 6-foot-3 frame, but a championship mindset. He was part of the Mountain Lions team that fell in overtime to Liberty in the 2019 6A finals.
Just like his new teammates, he’s hungry for redemption.
“I think that will play a big part,” Hanohano said of the championship loss while he was at Red Mountain. “I know when to speak up and I know when to put my head down and just work hard. Showing what I can do on and off the field, everyone will know that I’m here for a purpose.
Highland’s defense figures to again be strong heading into the new season. Carson Allen, a soon-to-be senior linebacker, brings a certain level of attitude Farrel describes as someone who knows they have the ability to dominate on any given play.
Allen, who is also an all-state wrestler, learned behind Highland’s senior defenders last year. He brings the same passion they had on the way to the championship game and is one of several returning starters along the defense that often gives Dayley and the offense problems in practice.
“Our defense, what do I say that sounds nice?” Dayley joked. “They get after it. Fischer (Camac) knocks down a lot of my passes because he’s so tall. But they’re a good group who we lean upon as an offense and Carson has become a good leader not only for them but this team.”
Farrel believes his team has thrived so far this offseason. Part of that stems from actually being able to conduct workouts as a team and use equipment. Last year, with the pandemic in full swing, Highland and other schools in Gilbert and the state were forced to pause all activities and progress in stages.
Now with virtually no setbacks, Highland has been able to move on with a sense of normalcy. The Hawks plan to compete in various 7-on-7 tournaments throughout the summer while individual players attend college camps with the extended recruiting dead period now lifted by the NCAA as of June 1.
“It’s back to business as usual,” Farrel said. “We are back in the weight room with the full team, and I always joke that we know we are working hard when the mirrors fog up. Like Herm Edwards said, ‘you play to win the game.’ Any time we go out to practice, we want to compete.
“But we are aiming for bigger things. I’ll sacrifice a win in 7s in the summer for what we are aiming to do in the fall.”