CHANDLER – Chandler High School has dominated the Arizona high school football scene for years. The Wolves won six championships at the highest level in seven years between 2014 and 2020, and was poised to earn a sixth straight and seventh in eight years, until Saguaro High School topped the Wolves in the 2021 Open Division Championship. It was a storybook ending for the Sabercats, and it showed that the titan of Arizona high school football was mortal.
Friday’s game was one of the most anticipated high school games in the state and country. The anticipation to see the new Chandler offense under junior quarterback Dylan Raiola was evident. Saguaro alum and Arizona Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy made an appearance, along with Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, running back Eno Benjamin and safety Budda Baker.
With an announced attendance of over 5,000, the home crowd was loud and ready for vengeance. And in front of a standout crowd for a rematch of last year’s championship, Chandler exacted a little revenge in a 31-21 victory on Arizona Avenue to improve to 4-0.
However, the Wolves offense got off to a slow start after coming off an hour-and-a-half lightning delay against a strong Saguaro defense.
“It was just the little things,” junior tight end Kaden Anderson said of the first-half miscues. “Our mind wasn’t on the right things.”
Saguaro (2-2) built a 14-point lead with seven minutes left in the first half. Midway through the second quarter, Chandler started its scoring run of 31 unanswered points and built an insurmountable lead for win. Coach Rick Garrison attributed the slow start to younger players, big eyes and bright lights.
“We have to pay attention to detail just like we did in the second half,” Garrison said. “We have a lot of things to clean up. But we’re going to get better, we’re going to keep growing.”
The come-from-behind win also exposed the potential of the Chandler offense. The Chandler offense is led by Raiola, but the Ohio State Buckeyes commit only needed to hand the ball to running back Ca’Lil Valentine, who rushed for 168 yards on 20 attempts. The Sabercats defense held their previous two opponents to a combined 11 points, yet the Wolves posted 31 points in the last 31 minutes.
If Chandler can utilize the balanced attack of Valentine with Raiola, opposing defenses are in trouble and Garrison will be seeking his third championship in four years at Chandler. With Raiola behind center, the Wolves will look to pass more often than not. After all, he’s the top quarterback in the country for his class.
“(Valentine’s) a great running back, that’s my guy,” Anderson said after the game “(Our offense) clicks really well; the sky is the limit. We’re like a family. We’re always together, always bonding. It’s a big part of our offense.”
When the two teams met in the championship game in November of 2021, Saguaro dominated Chandler’s young offensive line. This time, the Wolves offensive line made the difference in the game. The team rushed for 192 total yards and controlled the line of scrimmage since the midway point of the second quarter.
In the three years of the Open Division, Chandler and Saguaro have met in the championship twice. Saguaro had to forfeit before the first round because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the team in 2021.
The Wolves know there is a potential for a third playoff battle between the two blue bloods of Arizona high school football.
“I’m so proud to lead (the players) and this (coaching staff),” Garrison said. “These are the things that make Chandler high great.”