6A football title game is all about overcoming setbacks

If you’re looking for a feel-good sports story to close out the 2020 high school football season, look no further than today’s 6A state championship game.

Chaparral High School and Highland High will meet today at high noon, each arriving with their own interesting back story to add color to the contest.

Chaparral’s improbable climb to the top came after a demoralizing setback to start the season.  The Scottsdale school didn’t play its first game of the 2020 season until the last week in October, weeks after most Arizona high school teams had a couple of games under their belts.  That three-week delay was due to a 14-day quarantine after a Chaparral player tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

The Firebirds weren’t able to jump on board until Week 4 of the season, and had lots of ground to make up.

Highland, meanwhile, has its own back story.  The Gilbert school is playing for its first-ever state title in football, the first time its even been in a championship game.

The long climb to the top has had frustrating setbacks the last couple of years.  In 2018, the Hawks advanced to the 6A semifinals, only to lose to top-ranked Chandler HS in overtime.  Last year, they fell three points short of a win in the quarterfinals.

Highland is 7-3 on the season, with all three losses coming in quick succession around mid-season.  But two of those losses were to Chandler HS and Hamilton HS, the top two seeds in the Open Division. who will be playing for the Open title.  The other loss was to Queen Creek HS, the No. 2 seed in the 6A playoffs.

Chaparral beat Queen Creek on the way to the title game, while Highland upset top-seeded Boulder Creek HS.

This will be a championship game between the No. 4 seed (Highland) and the No. 7 seed (Chaparral).  Not a single top-three seed in the finals.  That’s a side story all its own.

The Highland offense will come into the game with an offense ready to unload on the Firebirds.  Max Davis, the Hawks’ senior running back, will break the school’s rushing record of 2,538 yards today since he’s just two yards short of that goal after piling up 159 yards in the semifinal win against Boulder Creek.  He already holds the school’s single-season record for touchdowns (21).

And directing the offense will be junior quarterback Gage Dayley who threw for 245 yards and four TDs against Casteel HS in the quarterfinals, and then chipped in four more touchdowns against Boulder Creek while completing 12 of 17 pass attempts for 215 yards.

But it will likely boil down to whether the Highland defense can keep the Firebirds (5-2) from running away with this one.  Chaparral’s monster trio of quarterback Brayten Silbor, running back Jared Williams, and wide receiver Max Minor have fueled the Firebirds to double-digit victories in the first two playoff games.

In the 31-14 semifinal win over Sandra Day O’Connor HS, Silbor threw for 355 yards on 26-for-39 passing and Minor had nine catches for 168 yards.  Like Highland, Chaparral also attributes its two losses to Chandler and Hamilton, who will play for the Open title.

And Williams didn’t even play in that game.  He contributed 195 yards on 30 carries in the 26-8 quarterfinal win against Queen Creek, but sat out the O’Connor game to nurse a hamstring pull suffered in the quarterfinal game.

The stage has been set for a game that will likely see-saw, with victory hinging on a big play or two.  But the big stage isn’t unfamiliar to Chaparral, which has seven state championship trophies, gathered from the last 16 years.

However, they’ve been in a rebuilding mode ever since Charlie Ragle left after the 2011 season to take a job with the Arizona State program.  Chaparral won three state titles during Ragle’s five years as head coach.  The program burned through three head coaches before Brent Barnes took it over three years ago and is on the verge of bringing back the glory.

The Firebirds won those three titles in 5A, before moving up to 6A a few years ago.

Now they have a chance to start another run in the state’s top conference.  Only Highland stands in the way.