Former Saguaro football coach John Sanders set the high school football community into a tizzy last season when he rested his starters in a 65-0 loss to rival Chaparral.
New coach Jason Mohns is ready to one-up him this Thursday when the two Scottsdale powerhouses meet again.
“Maybe I’ll just take (the players) bowling that night,” he said. “Not even show up at all.”
Alas, it’s a joke this time around. While Sanders went through with the controversial decision of sitting his stars, it will be all hands on deck for the Sabercats on Thursday.
There are the same concerns about injuries with the postseason only a week away, but Mohns believes he owes it to the school’s alumni to play this game from start to finish.
“They didn’t get to see us put it all on the field,” Mohns said. “We owe it to them this year to give them everything we have.”
Saguaro is 6-2 and only a No. 8 seed in the Division III power rankings, but has played like the state title favorite since getting five starters back from injury after the first couple weeks.
Chaparral is also the No. 8 seed in the Division II seedings, but all three of its losses came in heartbreaking fashion.
While neither team is the overwhelming favorite to win a state title like each was last season, both are back and among the elite. Chaparral is shooting for its fourth consecutive state championship while Saguaro is aiming for a sixth in seven years.
Even though some current players participated in last year’s contest, the pregame hype fizzled once the realization hit that Saguaro wasn’t trying.
“It didn’t even feel like (a rivalry game),” said Chaparral coach Dave Huffine, then the offensive coordinator. “We just shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘Let’s get ready for the playoffs.’ We didn’t even talk about it anymore.”
The stands should be packed and the game will showcase several college-bound athletes, per usual. Chaparral is led by Jake Roh, who is the main threat offensively with 48 catches for 700 yards and 12 touchdowns and is fourth on the team in tackles (46) at linebacker.
The Firebirds have alternated quarterbacks this season, but senior Brad Schencker seems to be settling in as the starter. He threw for 315 yards and six scores in a surprisingly easy 55-20 win over Horizon last week.
Chaparral started 1-3 with losses to Salpointe, Marcos de Niza and Desert Mountain all in the closing minutes, but has since reeled off five straight wins. Huffine said his players may have tried to do too much individually early on.
“They wanted to make the big play and prove (Chaparral was) just as good as we’ve always been,” Huffine said. “Maybe they would stretch out for more yards and fumble or try to fit the ball into a tight window. They weren’t quite sure what they needed to do to be successful yet. One thing they’ve learned to do is trust their teammates.”
Saguaro also struggled early on, losing to Paradise Valley in the season opener and then narrowly defeating Phoenix Thunderbird. But injuries were the main culprit, as star wide receiver/defensive back Christian Kirk missed both games with a concussion. The Sabercats are healthy now and have played well since that start, with their only loss coming to defending Division I-champion Desert Vista.
Saguaro is second in Division III with 462 points scored this season.
“We’re happy with where we’re at,” Mohns said. “Sometimes the numbers can lie (when inflated against inferior competition) but we’re putting up a lot of those numbers in two quarters.”
The rivalry has changed quite a bit from a year ago.
Sanders is now an assistant at Arizona State and former Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle is at Arizona. Mainstays like D.J. Foster, Davonte Neal and Connor Brewer have moved on, as well.
But this rivalry is more than certain key figures. Former Chaparral coach Ron Estabrook gave the Firebirds a history lesson at practice earlier this week, but everyone involved seems to be well aware what’s at stake.
“We had a meeting with the parents before the season and the first question they ask is: ‘How’s it looking against Saguaro?’” Huffine said. “We hadn’t even played our first game yet. It’s always looming, always lurking. This is what high school football is all about.”