From second fiddle to leader of the band…
Chandler High School’s football team no longer has to play in the shadow of cross-town rival Hamilton High. The reigning state champion Wolves will be the team to beat again in 6A, Arizona’s top conference.
And now, the Wolves are getting love on a national level as well. They are the No. 7 team on USA Today’s Super 25 Preseason list following a 13-2 season that ended with a state title, and No. 11 on the High School Football America Preseason Top 100 rankings.
But it wasn’t always this way. Just a few years ago, Chandler was still struggling to break through that final big test of winning a state championship.
When Chandler beat Hamilton to win the Division I (before the classification changed to 6A) state football championship in 2014, it broke a 65-year-long title drought. The school’s only other state title was added to the trophy case back in 1949. It also marked the first time the Wolves were able to beat the dreaded Huskies in 17 meetings, spread over a very frustrating 15-year span.
The year before, the two teams met in the state semifinals and once again Hamilton, which had won eight of the previous 13 state titles and were often nationally-ranked, denied Chandler’s attempt to reach the 2013 title game by knocking them out in the semifinals.
Now the Wolves have pocketed two championships in the last three years, while dominating their match-ups with Hamilton, and will surely be favored to play for their third this season. They’re still livin’ the dream.
They finished that historic 2014 season with a 13-1 record, with their only loss coming at the hands of Mountain Pointe High School, the defending champion. That season earned them a No. 12 national ranking to close out the schedule.
The next year, Chandler continued to roll, finishing the 2015 season 11-2 and falling just short of reaching the title game again. And last year, the Wolves put up 13 wins again on the way to winning it all. They closed out the season by winning their last 11 games.
Before the 2016 season started, MaxPreps had them included in its preseason Top 25, this time at No. 23 – the only Arizona high school on the list, selected from some 15,000 teams across the country.
And once again they’re locked and loaded to start a new season, with the kind of talent that can take them back to another title game. The Wolves will be without the 35 combined touchdowns it got last year from its big 1-2 punch, graduated running backs, Ryan Johnson (772 yards rushing), and T.J. Green, the Arizona Big Schools Player of the Year who ran for 2,267 yards and accounted for 25 of those TDs.
But the offensive juggernaut that averaged 47 points a game will still have Jacob Conover at quarterback and the junior’s favorite target, wide receiver Gunner Romney. Conover threw for 3,715 yards and 32 touchdowns and Romney also hit the 1,000-yard plateau with 1,309 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. And on the other corner will be another wide receiver with experience, senior Jack Caldwell.
And the defense returns a solid core of upper-classmen to lead that unit, including a couple of Division I commits. Defensive tackle Chris Manoa, who is part of a line that is pretty much intact, and defensive back Bryce Jackson are both headed to UNLV next year. Add to that junior linebacker Zach Bowers, who had 88 tackles last year, and senior Brayden Flynn, who transferred in from Hamilton where he posted 80 tackles.
The Wolves picked up another Hamilton transfer when sophomore Avery Carrington arrived to provide a big boost at safety.
Chandler will get tested early when it takes on another national power, IMG Academy. The Florida school finished up 2016 ranked second in the USA Today poll after posting an undefeated season, and picked up where they left off by starting this season ranked No. 2 in the preseason Top 25.
Chandler head coach Shaun Aguano likes to test his teams early and against the best national teams available. Last season, the Wolves traveled to Texas to beat Valdosta High School, the reigning state champion from Georgia, as they participated in a national bowl series event held during the Christmas break. This time, they will have home-field advantage when they take on IMG in Chandler on Aug. 26.
But they will get a chance to prepare for IMG, the second game on the schedule, by taking on Red Mountain High School in the season opener. The Mesa school advanced to last year’s state semifinals.
ESPNU will televise the IMG game as part of an all-day, four-game showcase series that will feature defending state champions from around the country. Chandler, which will be the final game featured, will be the only high school in Arizona to get complete national coverage.
There will be two more televised games for the Wolves this season, viewed locally on YurView (formerly Cox 7). Those last two televised games will be against Gilbert’s Perry High School on Oct. 6 and…you guessed it…Hamilton on Oct. 27.