Good times abound on Arizona Ave. these days, north and south of the Loop 202.
The two remaining Chandler schools are riding high, buoyed by football teams who’ve not only excelled the past couple weeks, but have done so doing it the way they’ve wanted since August.
At Hamilton, it meant getting healthy. At Chandler, it meant playing defense, which led to extinguishing the lifetime ghost of beating Hamilton which has haunted the Wolves since both schools existed.
The Wolves did so in October with a 26-16 victory, their first since Hamilton opened in 1998, a span of 17 consecutive losses.
No matter Hamilton’s dominance since it opened, it was inevitable the Huskies would eventually lose a game to their neighbor, but the Wolves have rolled on since, including last week’s 49-21 blowout win over Basha.
The consensus is it’s difficult to beat a team twice in a season, especially when the first matchup was close — Bryce Perkins led Chandler on a game-winning 67-yard drive with one minute remaining and no timeouts — but while the playoffs are often a different story, it’s allowed the Wolves to feel something new.
“The kids talk about it, they’re excited because they know what they can do,” Wolves coach Shaun Aguano said of his team’s play since that win. “It’s a change in attitude. We’re at an advantage with the monkey off our back. Our kids feel confident. The way we’ve come out since then we’re playing at all cylinders. From a confidence level in our minds they’ll come out. They’re not looking for the bad to happen.
“So many times we got close to winning and something would happen and our kids are always hearing it. After that, from a mental standpoint, we’re a lot stronger.”
So, too, claim the Huskies. This is as healthy as Hamilton has been since Week 1 against Eastlake (Calif.), and the Huskies felt it’s come to fruition the past two weeks, defensively and from a physicality standpoint.
In wins against Goodyear Millennium and especially last week against Pinnacle, the Huskies were stout defensively and took advantage of the opposition’s mistakes.
“I think when we play right we can be real good,” said Huskies coach Steve Belles, who noted this year’s seniors are “pretty unhappy” about being the first Hamilton class to lose to Chandler. “I think we’ll play a whole lot better against Chandler than the last time around. I think our kids are anxious to have an chance to avenge that loss. We’ll see if it makes any difference.“
Could this be a matchup of defenses? Hamilton has long had one of the best unit’s in Arizona high school football, and this year is no different. Chandler hasn’t necessarily been viewed in that realm, but the Wolves’ believe they’ve turned a new leaf
Aguano sees depth at every level of the defense as a difference, not simply a couple standout players as has often been the case in recent years. There are plenty of talented kids (JR Hunt, Cruz Flores, Wesley Sutton and Jordan Hoyt), but the depth and playmaking of the other kids has been a boon.
“I think a little bit is the scheme and these kids have bought in,” Aguano said. “The biggest difference is playing hard on every snap. They’re going to hit you. They play well together.”
The Huskies are going to challenge this group up front, wanting to run the ball to set up Sam Sasso and the passing game. The Huskies felt they couldn’t do it to their liking the first time around.
For Hamilton, it’s a clean slate, because a team might beat the Huskies on occasion in the regular season, but this isn’t the regular season anymore.
“The only difference by them beating us they get to wear their home uniforms,” Belles said. “A lot changes (between Oct. 4 and playoffs). I’m just worried about a way to beat them. They beat us and deserve to be here.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.