Only one football team within the Chandler Unified School District will still be undefeated Saturday morning, and, for once, it won’t be Hamilton.
The Huskies have had a stranglehold atop the city’s pecking order since the turn of the decade, winning six state championships in that time and becoming the premier program in Arizona.
There’s no shame in what Chandler and Basha have done recently, as both are perennial playoff participants and each have recent state semifinal appearances on their resumes.
But the shadow Hamilton casts is large, and now, finally, one of these two teams can break into the sunshine.
“Watching Hamilton lose, they were knocked off that pedestal and it’s like, they can be beaten,” Basha wide receiver Nate Phillips said. “It’s more incentive for us to practice harder and play harder. We want to be the best team in Chandler.”
The Wolves and Bears are each 3-0, ranked Nos. 5 and 7, respectively, in the Tribune’s Division I top-10. The winner remains squarely in the state title conversation and, at least for now, has a case as the city’s best football team with No. 8 Hamilton sputtering to a 1-2 start.
“It’s a huge importance to be the No. 1 team in Chandler, because when you are the No. 1 team in Chandler, you’re probably the No. 1 team in the state,” Chandler coach Shaun Aguano said. “To us, that’s the idea.”
The Wolves have outscored Kofa, Maryvale and Mesquite by a combined score of 172-7. Quarterback Darell Garretson has verbally committed to San Jose State, while wide receiver Bryce Perkins, wide receiver Dionte Sykes and safety J.R. Hunt are just a few of the talented players with Division I scholarship offers.
But Chandler was stocked with talent last year, stormed out of the gate and then lost to Basha, 58-41. The Wolves finished 8-4 and lost to Hamilton in the state quarterfinals.
Aguano thinks this team has made the necessary adjustments defensively to slow down the Bears, but beyond that, he’s still in wait-and-see mode.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know anything about us yet,” Aguano said. “We can be pretty good, but I just don’t know from a mental and physicality standpoint where we are.”
Sykes played at Basha last year, as did Chandler running back Myles Smith. Running back J.J. Husar was the team’s other high-profile transfer, leaving for Desert Ridge in the offseason. Despite the defections, the offense is averaging 45.3 points per game behind Phillips, running back Rajhan Meriwether and quarterback Zach Werlinger.
Basha has wins over Corona del Sol, Mountain Ridge and St. Mary’s and is coming off a state semifinal appearance a season ago. The win over Chandler and an upset of Brophy in the quarterfinals in 2011 did a lot to raise the profile of the program, but heading into this season, Basha was still mostly viewed as the third-best team in Chandler.
“Unfortunately, Basha’s always been toward the bottom because it’s (new),” Phillips said. “You take it as motivation. We’ve proven we can play at that high level, and now we need to prove we can stay there.”
Basha coach Bernie Busken is more worried about game-planning, academics and injuries than any big-picture outlook. He knows how much of the season remains and how many twists and turns could still be coming. Last year the Bears started the season 6-0, lost their next three, then ended up one game short of playing for a state title.
Busken, though, does have experience in this area.
He was on the flip side of the coin when he coached at Mountain View, running the state’s top program while the other Mesa schools aimed for the Toros.
Hamilton subsequently took the torch from Mountain View after he left and has held it to this day despite the early-season hiccups.
“Hamilton’s not done by any means, and I don’t know if Chandler or us — either one — is any good right now,” Busken said. “I guess it’s natural for people to speculate, but I don’t know as coaches if you think about (a shift of power). Well, deep down in there you hope that’s true. But I just don’t know if it’s true yet.”
The city’s best team will shake out by season’s end because all three play each other and should make the playoffs, but only Basha or Chandler will leave Friday night unblemished.
Hamilton, meanwhile, has a tough matchup with Desert Ridge. A loss there would drop the Huskies to an almost-inconceivable 1-3, and, like any Hamilton failure, would be big news.
“It’s hard to ignore, especially in this media world with the internet and everything,” Aguano said. “(Chandler players) will come to me and say, ‘Coach, did you see Hamilton lost?’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, but we won’t see them until the sixth game’ — I’ll just try to play it off. But deep down within the confines of our locker room, everyone knows.”
Hamilton has been at or near the top of the big-school football landscape since 2001. Not only has it been the best team in Chandler, but one of the best in Arizona year-in and year-out.
Finally, the Huskies have had a minor slip-up.
There’s plenty of time left in the season and Hamilton may eventually take back its top spot as Chandler royalty.
However, when the clock hits zero Friday night, the city will have a new king, at least for a week.