Highland High School‘s football team may not get an invitation to play in the Open Division state playoffs this season, although it’s still within reach.
But the Hawks will have experienced what it would have been like to mix it up with the state’s big dogs.
The Gilbert school will have played the three teams expected to contend for the state title in the Open Division, which was set up a couple of years ago to give the state’s eight best teams from across the three top conferences, based on computer analysis, a chance to compete head-to-head.
Highland (6-2) will travel to play Chandler HS (8-0) next Friday night, and has already played Hamilton HS and Basha HS in back-to-back games. The computer has Chandler ranked No. 1 among the candidates to fill the eight slots, while Basha is No. 2 and Hamilton No. 3.
That three-game gauntlet most assuredly qualifies as a “murderer’s row” of the most feared teams in the state.
The Hawks were first faced with the Basha Bears, a team that has one of the top defenses in the state this season and was averaging 46 points a game going into that Oct. 22 contest. That challenge turned into a 24-13 loss.
Last week, the challenge was the Hamilton Huskies, who put the Hawks in a 20-3 hole at halftime and went on to roll to a 32-12 victory.
Highland set the Open playoffs as a goal this season after barely missing the cut the last couple of years, and appeared to be on track to reach that destination when they opened the 2021 schedule with six straight wins. That elevated the Hawks to No. 6 in the computer rankings, well within the eight spots up for grabs.
After the Basha loss, however, they were left clinging to a No. 8 ranking. When the new rankings come out this week, the Hawks will likely find themselves on the outside looking in.
That doesn’t mean there is no hope for the Hawks. The last couple of weeks, Chandler has been looking like a team that could be beat — despite the Wolves appearing as intimidating as any team that has won 44 games in a row, dating all the way back to the 2017 season.
The Hawks are still recovering from taking on Hamilton, which MaxPreps has ranked as the No. 15 prep team in the country. And now they have to face the No. 10 team, Chandler.
As daunting as the task may seem, beating Chandler may be the only way Highland will be able to break back into the top eight; there are just two games left on the schedule. However, the Hawks could get a break since the computer will be factoring in strength of schedule before making the final cut. No one can deny they deserve that consideration.
Maybe a chat with the folks at Liberty HS could provide the motivation needed to face one of the most dominant high school programs in state history, winners of five straight state titles (three in 6A before the last two in the Open Division).
The Liberty Lions were the last team to give the Wolves a good scare, taking the Chandler power to overtime in the semifinals of last year’s Open Division playoffs. It took a two-point conversion by the Wolves to pull out the 36-35 win.
It just shows that what has happened in past games isn’t a guarantee of future results. That’s the thought that the Hawks will have to hang onto going into battle with a national power.
After all, sooner or later some team is going to break the Chandler win streak. Highland could be that team.