New Open Division crowns Chandler ‘true’ football champ

There’s one thing you can say about Saguaro High School‘s football team: they don’t quit when the going gets tough.

But one thing you can’t say about them: they aren’t the best team in Arizona high school football right now.

That distinction now rightfully belongs to Chandler High School, which beat the Scottsdale power, 42-35, in the first championship game played in the new Open Division playoffs that pitted the best eight teams from the state’s top three (6A, 5A, 4A) conferences. Chandler is 6A, Saguaro is 4A.

Until now, there had been no way to determine which was the best team in the state since each conference crowned its own champion.

Saturday’s game at Sun Devil Stadium had been billed by the media as the “Game of the Decade” since Chandler has won four state 6A titles in the last five years and Saguaro set a state record by winning the last six state titles at its level.

Coming into the game, Chandler had won 25 straight games, and had not lost to an Arizona prep team over the last 32 games. Saguaro was riding a win streak of 57 consecutive games against in-state opponents.

Chandler (13-0) was ranked by USA Today as the No. 10 team in the nation, Saguaro (11-2) was the No. 25 team on that list.

At first, it looked more like the kind of mismatch you would expect between a 6A program and a 4A program. Saguaro was nearly run out of the stadium in the first quarter.

But, after getting smashed in the mouth by the powerful Chandler offense, Saguaro was able to get back in the game and work to recover from a 21-0 lead the Wolves were able to pile up in the first six minutes of the game. It was a real wake-up call to a team that has dominated in-state schools since 2015, when its win streak against the locals started.

Trailing 28-7 going into the second half, Saguaro rallied to close the gap to a single score at 35-28 with just over 10 minutes still to play.

But Chandler went to a time-consuming ground game in the final quarter, driving 80 yards before Dae Dae Hunter pounded out the last four yards for a 14-point lead that was enough to hold off the Sabercats for the final four minutes of the game.

Hunter, a dynamic senior running back who transferred into the program this season from Colorado, averages 12 yards a carry. He was hurt (ankle) in the opener, a 56-14 rout of Chaparral High, which sidelined him for the 24-16 victory over Salpointe Catholic in the semifinal. Back to full strength for the title game, he ran for 247 yards against the Sabercats and accounted for two touchdowns.

Saguaro made one last attempt at winning the game when quarterback Tyler Beverett used a 15-yard run to put the ball at Chandler’s one-yard line. Will Shaffer punched it across the goal line to make it a one-score game again, but Saguaro’s attempt at recovering an on-side kick failed and Chandler ran out the final 1:19 on the clock.

Beverett had a huge game, throwing for 230 yards and rushing for another 103. Saguaro’s Mikey Keene contributed three touchdowns to the losing effort, throwing for 186 yards.

What had started out as a rout turned into a true championship-caliber game. The fans who didn’t leave at halftime when the rain started coming down definitely got their money’s worth.

And the gutsy performance by a 4A school proved the point that the worth of a football program shouldn’t be judged by the conference in which it plays.

In that regard, the new Open Division format should be considered to be a success.