The wait was worth it for Devon Dampier and the Saguaro High School football team.
Per AIA rules, Dampier had to sit out the first half of the 2021 season after transferring from Pinnacle High School. When he got back on the field, he led Saguaro to perhaps its biggest football win in school history.
The junior quarterback hit Jaedon Mathews with a 40-yard touchdown pass with four minutes on the game clock to clinch a 20-15 victory over Chandler High (11-2) in yesterday’s Open Division championship game at Sun Devil Stadium.
That scoring play was the only one Saguaro (12-1) could muster in the second half, but it was all that was needed as senior defensive back Junius Mars intercepted Blaine Hipa on Chandler’s next possession to put the lid on the victory.
It could be argued that this win was the program’s biggest, despite the fact that Saguaro has had a lot of big wins. Each victory that enabled the Scottsdale power to string together six consecutive state championships was big. But this one elevated the program to a new level.
When Saguaro was winning six titles in a row, it was accomplishing that in the lower divisions. The Sabercats won the last two, in 2017 and 2018, playing in the 4A Conference. Before that they bounced around between Division III and Division II.
But this one came against a 6A power. Before yesterday, Chandler hadn’t been beaten by an Arizona school since August of the 2018 season. The Wolves won three straight titles in the 6A Conference before the Arizona Interscholastic Association created the Open Division, which pits the top schools from the top three conferences in head-to-head competition. This year’s field included five 6A teams, one 5A (Saguaro), and two from 4A.
And to win this title, the Sabercats had to beat top-seeded Hamilton High in the semifinals and second-seeded Chandler in the final, both 6A programs.
When the Open Division was begun in 2019, Chandler was the first school invited to join the eight-team field. The Wolves didn’t skip a beat in the new playoff division, winning the first two Open titles to make it five straight state championships.
Saguaro, which has won 12 state titles in the last 26 years, has long been considered a football dynasty, but has been anxious to prove it can play with any team in the state. The Cats gave up a shot at a 5A title to accept an invitation to play in the inaugural Open Division game in 2019.
They lost to Hamilton in the Open title game that year, and then had to drop out of the 2020 Open competition when they had an outbreak of COVID-19 just as the playoffs were beginning.
This year’s ‘upset’ of No. 2-seeded Chandler by No. 5 Saguaro probably shouldn’t be that surprising. Saguaro has been one of the most dominant programs in the state over the last decade. From 2013 to 2018, when the Sabercats were putting together their run of six straight titles, they also had the longest winning streak in the state at the time, 28 consecutive wins.
During those six years, which included a couple of undefeated seasons, their combined record was 78-6. And they had to beat five different teams in the title games to earn the six gold balls.
Yesterday, they had the talent they needed to compete at the highest level, with Dampier becoming the key element to all three playoff wins. He finished the title game with 12-of-17 passing for 158 yards and two touchdowns. And then added another 129 yards rushing on 22 carries.
During the three playoff wins, Dampier racked up 451 yards on the ground.
But give credit, too, to the Saguaro defense. They protected a 14-12 halftime lead by holding the Wolves to a single field goal in the second half.
This year, it took one football dynasty to take down another. And, by doing so, Saguaro remains the lone big-school program in the state to string together six straight titles.
Look for Saguaro to be included in the 6A conference, the state’s highest, next season, despite a smaller-than-most enrollment.
There’s no longer any question that the Sabercats belong there.