Football finals: Chandler, Saguaro, Centennial back on top

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                </div>  When the desert dust finally cleared last night following two days of competition for a handful of state championship trophies across five divisions, there were the expected wins by […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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When the desert dust finally cleared last night following two days of competition for a handful of state championship trophies across five divisions, there were the expected wins by teams that have dominated all season long and those that are either repeating as state champs or returning to the top after a short absence.

But among the many teams competing for the big prize were a couple of programs that stepped out of the shadows this year and made it to the top of the mountain for the first time, or the first time in a long while.

River Valley High School will get the least notice because they play with the smaller schools in Division IV, but their first-ever state title was won in exciting fashion as the Dust Devils had to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull out a 28-21 win over Snowflake High School.

Faced with a 21-21 tie and fewer than five minutes left to play, River Valley’s senior quarterback Brady Viles engineered a 69-yard drive that was capped by a 28-yard run into the end zone by Brandon Long to finish out the scoring and secure the school’s first football state title.  The defense sealed the win by intercepting Snowflake QB Tyler Claridge in the game’s final minute.

Long was the work horse for the Monument Valley squad last night, carrying 29 times and picking up 177 yards to push his season total to 2,479, which puts him among the state’s rushing leaders.

However, the victory getting the most attention was on the biggest stage, in Division I where all eyes were on Chandler High School as it tried to win its first state title in 65 years – made all the more intriguing since it would have to beat perennial power Hamilton High to bring home the hardware.

While it seemed logical that Chandler should win this year’s title since it came into the playoffs as the top-ranked team in D-I, a long history of frustration brought the Wolves’ chances for success into question. Hamilton, which was given the No. 1 seed over Chandler in the state tournament, has owned the cross-town rivalry, beating Chandler 17 consecutive times over 15 years before the Wolves’ broke the streak with a win last year – and it was the Huskies that kept Chandler from the title last year by beating them in the semifinals.

Since before this decade began, Chandler has had to live in the long shadow cast by Hamilton.  But the Wolves left little question which was the better team in 2014 by beating Hamilton twice.

After soundly beating the Huskies earlier in the season and snapping the Huskies’ 10-year win streak at home, Chandler jumped to a 13-0 lead in Friday night’s game at University of Phoenix Stadium, and then held off the mighty Hamilton, which had been averaging 37 points a game, down the stretch to preserve the 28-7 win.

Chandler’s two scores in the first half came courtesy of its defense, which forced a pair of fumbles that were converted into scores.  And the Wolves made a huge statement in the second quarter by marching 98 yards for the second score of the game.

But Hamilton lost no time in beginning its comeback attempt as soon as intermission was over, driving on its first possession to cover 63 yards to close the gap to 13-7.  But the Chandler defense stiffened again in the fourth quarter, denying a first-down attempt by the Huskies on a fourth-and-inches, and then intercepting Hamilton quarterback James Sosinski in the end zone to quash another scoring attempt.  The Wolves turned each opportunity into a score to put a lid on the win.

Chandler quarterback Bryce Perkins started the game’s scoring with a 21-yard TD run in the first quarter, eventually finishing with 73 yards rushing and two touchdowns, combined with another 132 yards passing.  The senior will be in an Arizona State uniform next year.

Carrying the main rushing chores for the Wolves was Chase Lucas, who carried 15 times for 113 yards, but also pulled down four Perkins passes for another 37 yards.

In the Division II title game, played yesterday at Sun Devil Stadium, Centennial High School was busy engineering a 26-14 victory over No. 1-seeded Liberty High School that would bring home a championship for the first time since 2008. Centennial is accustomed to playing in the finals, having done so six times in the last eight years, but this was Liberty’s first appearance in a state title game.

Liberty, which came into the playoffs with a gaudy 12-1 record, worked its way back from a 20-0 deficit, but a 75-yard touchdown run by Dedrick Young gave the Coyotes the insurance score needed to wrap up the win and the title.  Young finished with 180 yards on 26 carries and accounted for two of the scores.  He, too, may be headed for Tempe since ASU is among the offers he is considering.

In the other two divisions there were no surprises – just business as usual.  Saguaro High put the cap on an undefeated season (14-0) in Division III by winning its seventh state title in nine years.  The Sabercats rolled over Williams Field High School , which was 12-1 coming into the game, riding most of the way on the back of senior running back Christian Kirk, generally considered to be the best prep player in the state this year.

Williams Field was holding its own early and battling to a 21-21 tie before Kirk returned a kick-off 98 yards to give the Sabercats a 28-21 halftime lead and provide the momentum the Scottsdale school needed to dominate the second half and post the 45-21 win.  Kirk finished with 188 yards rushing on 24 carries to account for four touchdowns, and then added another 61 yards in receptions.

That performance yesterday wrapped up a prep career for Kirk that watched him pile up 2,675 yards rushing and 3,942 yards receiving as he led Saguaro to state titles in three of his four years and helped the Sabercats to a string of 27 straight victories.

And, oh yeah, he’s also considering an offer from Arizona State, where his old teammate and close friend D.J. Foster plays.  It was Foster that held the career touchdown record at Saguaro before Kirk broke it this year by topping out at 103 TDs.

But the performance of Saguaro quarterback Kare’ Lyles yesterday shouldn’t be overlooked.  The junior completed 16 of his 22 pass attempts for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  One TD pass went for 45 yards and another covered 49 yards.

And finally, there’s Yuma Catholic in Division V.  All the Shamrocks did was beat a team on a 12-game winning streak to wrap up an undefeated season and repeat as state champions – their third title in four years.  This season’s 14-0 record goes down as the best in school history.

The 38-27 victory over Tempe Prep required a comeback from a 14-0 deficit, but Yuma Catholic did it by racking up 28 unanswered points in the second and third quarters – led by a sophomore back-up running back.  Jaylen Barnes came in to replace the injured Carter Rodriguez late in the first quarter and went on to score three touchdowns, running for 91 yards on 17 carries and adding 50 yards receiving.

Donovan Rooks led Shamrock receivers by pulling in four passes for 68 yards, while quarterback Jagan Cleary went 11-for-24 for 134 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Tempe Prep was looking for its first-ever football state championship, but Yuma Catholic beat them twice this season to put off those dreams for at least another year.