Eli Gross is a Sports Journalism Major at Arizona State University covering Highland High School Athletics.
The Highland Hawks fell short in last year’s football season, but some of their 6A division rivals did not.
Last year, Highland was left stranded after losing the 6A state championship to the Chaparral Firebirds, 24-14. Though the Hawks fell short, they were proud of the path they took and the work they put in. Head coach Brock Farrel cannot express how gratified he was of the Hawks’ performance.
"They did things no one else has ever done at Highland and that’s awesome,” said Farrel.
Farrel is pushing players to the next level. The Hawks strive to make the Open playoffs and are not hiding it. Farrel expressed his frustration in the fact that the team missed the Open playoffs by one or two games every year. Last year, they did not seize the opportunity, but 2021 is meant to be different.
“We are focused on winning enough games with a tough enough schedule to reach the open playoffs,” Farrel said.
This season, Highland reckons it will finish stronger than ever before. The word, ‘finish,’ is going to be a major key for this Highland football team as it ends the year facing up against not one, but three Arizona juggernauts. To end the year, Highland has one home venture followed by three away games. The three away games are all section games.
“This is the best way to practice for the open playoffs. We are away and we go against the best two teams in the state,” Farrel said.
On Friday, Oct. 22, Highland will play against the current No. 6 ranked Basha Bears, who currently have five of the top 20 recruits for the class of 2023. The Hawks have not lost to the Bears since the 2014-2015 fall season. The past two meetings between these teams have been no competition as the Hawks blew out the Bears 40-7 and 20-0.
The following week, Highland takes on the top-ranked Hamilton Huskies. The Huskies walked into Highland’s home field in 2020 and wiped the floor with the Hawks, beating them 46-26. The Hawks are on a hunt for revenge as they are going to Hamilton’s territory. The Huskies were the 2020 open division runner-up after they lost in the championship game to Chandler High School.
To finish off the three-week trek, the Hawks hit the road again to meet the reigning 2020 Open Division champion and second-ranked Chandler Wolves. Chandler has been on a mission every year. The Wolves have not lost a playoff game since the conclusion of their 2015-2016 season. The Hawks will finish off the season with a section road game against the Casteel Colts.
“They bleed just like us, they put their pants on just like us, they put their cleats on just like us. We are working hard just like them,” Highland linebacker coach Dominic Willis said.
The Wolves have not lost a game since the first game of their 2018-2019 season. The Huskies only have five losses since the 2019-2020 season, and three of those losses came at the paws of the Chandler Wolves. However, the Hawks do not fear these teams.
“We have been there before … My thing is, why not us? We can be the ones to upset them,” said Willis.
The Highland coaches are not the only ones who have the desire to finish strong. The players are itching to get back to the championship, but more importantly, they want to succeed.
“We have a lot of pride and we want to win,” quarterback Gage Dayley said.
“These kids are itching to see the field, from the starters to the rotation guys everyone wants to get reps,” Willis added.
The Hawks pride themselves in defense. Unfortunately, they recently lost one of their key weapons. Edge rusher and UNLV commit Fisher Camac went down against Desert Vista and left the game with a broken arm. Camac currently leads the team in solo tackles and sacks.
“You can’t replace someone like Fisher,” Farrel said. “And since we can’t replace him, we will work with what we have. Unfortunately, you can’t just build a new kid.”
Farrel mentioned that the players behind Camac are willing to step up and do their best to fill his shoes. Farrel talked about the transfers they have that are waiting to be eligible, one of those being defensive lineman, Cooper Scott.
The Hawks strive to be healthy by the end of the season. Though Fisher sustained an injury against Desert Vista, the rest of the team seems to be producing at a high rate and avoiding injury.
The end of the season matchup against Chandler, Hamilton and Basha is a perfect representation of the Open playoffs. Basha has put a target on the Hawks’ back, and Farrel has played Hamilton and Chandler back-to-back multiple times.
Highland started its season with a speech on how the players’ minds need to seek passion through excellence day in and day out. Farrel promoted that they need to be excellent to compete at the highest level.
“You can’t ever reach perfection and once you do reach perfection, you should be looking to see how you can improve it,” said Farrel.
Going up against the best team in the state is the motivation for the Hawks. They know what it takes. Willis’ “why not us?” shows the determination to not only compete this year but conquer what many others have not.
Highland is off to the start it hoped for as it is 4-0 with its recent victory over Desert Vista. The Hawks have some bumps in the road but are hammering away at their pathway to prosperity.