Open semis: Liberty HS showed that Chandler isn’t invincible

Chandler football can be beaten.

Forget about the 42-game winning streak.

That’s the message that Hamilton High School likely took away from Friday’s Open Division semifinal game between Chandler High and Liberty High School, a nail-biting Chandler win in overtime.

Hamilton rolled over No. 6 seed Salpointe Catholic,  58-14, in the other Open semifinal to earn the right to face off against Chandler for the title.  The two cross-town rivals met during the regular season, with Chandler claiming the 34-14 win.  This time there will be more than bragging rights on the line.

Chandler has been a dominant force all season long.  The Wolves have averaged nearly 50 points a game, outscoring opponents 385-57.  The most points scored against them by any team was 19 in a Nov. 13 match-up against Highland High.

The Wolves are the very definition of the word “dominant.”  They have won 42 consecutive games against Arizona teams and 35 straight overall, a winning streak that stretches back to the first month of the 2017 season.  If they beat Hamilton for the state title, it will be the team’s fifth consecutive big-school title, a new state record.

But Saturday night, Liberty showed that what happens in past games isn’t necessarily a guarantee of future results.  The Lions were a two-point conversion away from upsetting the Wolves, breaking their win streak, and moving on to the Open championship game.

Just taking the Wolves into overtime was an accomplishment.  The last time a team took Chandler to OT was back in 2018 when the Wolves needed to complete a two-point conversion to salvage a 36-35 victory over Highland.

Fifth-seeded Liberty (6-4) gave the Wolves all they could handle, rallying from a 21-point deficit at halftime to tie the game at 28-28 with just three minutes left to play in the game.  It was a pick-six that Julian Gerth returned 30 yards to provide the tying TD and force the overtime.

Chandler scored first in OT when running back Eli Sanders plunged into the end zone on a 1-yard run and the Wolves ran the score to 35-28 on a Crew Peterman PAT.  It was the fourth touchdown of the game for Sanders, who finished with 206 yards on 29 carries.  His three first-half scores, combined with a 55-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Jalen Richmond put the Lions in that deep hole in the first half.

Liberty answered when they got their turn on first possession in OT.   QB Brock Mast completed a life-saving three-yard TD pass to Grant Brunelle on fourth down.  The Lions went for two points and the win, but Brock’s pass attempt failed and the upset bid became history.

Sanders and Chandler quarterback Mikey Keene inflicted most of the offensive damage, with the pair combining for almost 400 yards.  Keene had 186 yards on 16-for-29 passing.  Richmond also hit the century mark, contributing 116 yards on six pass plays.

Liberty was  one play from being able to claim the upset of the 2020 season.  Now it’s Hamilton that gets to take a try at being the giant-killer.

The Open Division, which debuted last year, will crown a second champion on Dec. 12 at Desert Vista High School in Phoenix.  Kickoff is 6 p.m.