Nov. 17—For two years Highland was denied a chance to compete in the Open Division, the state's premier postseason football tournament.
The Hawks, as a result, ran the table in the 6A Conference, winning back-to-back titles. This season, Highland finally got its chance to compete with the big dogs, as it was slated to match up against Chandler in a game between the No. 4 and 5 seeds in the Open.
Four field goals from Hudson Schambach and late-game heroics from junior defensive end Rhett Yetter was enough for the Hawks in the end, as they came from behind to beat the Wolves 19-14 to move on to the Open Division semifinals.
"It kinda feels like it didn't happen," Farrel said. "The hardest thing to do in high school football is beat a good team twice. We had the advantage, I feel like. Our guys came in and were ready."
The win marked the first for the Highland program over Chandler since 2005. The Hawks were winless against the Wolves until Friday night.
That includes one of the best playoff games of all time in 2018, when Chandler won in overtime in what proved to be the first taste of Highland as a yearly playoff contender under Farrel. In the three wins for Chandler over the Hawks since that 2018 game, two of them have been by a combined five points.
That was the difference in the quarterfinal round of the Open this season.
"I was still playing college football in '05," Farrel said. "First time since I've been here and it's great because I love those guys. Rick (Garretson) and Eric (Richardson), all of those guys. It's an honor to play against them and finally get a win so we can actually call this thing a rivalry maybe."
Chandler's offense came out firing on all cylinders. The Wolves attacked the Hawks with a balanced look, utilizing the legs of senior running back Ca'lil Valentine and the dual-threat ability of senior quarterback Blake Heffron.
Valentine found holes in the Highland defense while Heffron extended plays with his legs. At one point while facing pressure, he ducked under a would-be tackler and spun around. The move looked similar to what Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is able to do on Sundays.
Valentine capped off Chandler's first drive with a 16-yard touchdown. Highland answered with a 4-yard run by senior Kash Cullimore. The touchdown was set up by a long pass from junior quarterback Kalen Fisher to junior wideout Greg Toler Jr. The two connected three times for 66 yards. But the touchdown run by Cullimore was the only time the Hawks found the end zone.
"We're never not in it with the defense we have," Fisher said. "We didn't score in the second half, but we got field goals. That's all we needed. When it comes to the defense we have, that's all we need.
"The point we've been trying to make the last two years is proven. But we're not done."
Chandler went right back down the field again after Highland's score. Valentine scored for the second time on a 4-yard run.
Then, Chandler's offense sputtered.
The Wolves had opportunities. A fumble that slipped out of Fisher's hands was recovered by Chandler at the Highland 13. The Wolves weren't able to put points on the board as Heffron was intercepted by Cole Archibald in the end zone. A drive in the second half stalled inside the 30 after Heffron was forced out of bounds on a run. After a measurement with the chains, he was ruled short of the line to gain.
Chandler's final opportunity came late in the fourth trailing by five points. The Wolves drove down to get inside the Highland 10. An offsides penalty initially put them closer to the goal line with a fresh set of downs, but an unsportsmanlike penalty moved them back to the 19. Three straight incompletions followed. On fourth down, Yetter sacked Heffron to seal the game.
"I just realized it was a team win," Yetter said. "My team did great in the second half. We didn't let them score. I knew I had to go 100% every play."
With each drive that stalled for Chandler, Highland's offense did just enough to put Schambach in field goal range.
Fisher finished 15-of-17 for 181 yards on the night. Schambach connected on field goals of 40, 41, 30 and 22 yards — the last coming late in the fourth quarter to extend the lead.
"We had opportunities, and we didn't make the most of them on offense," Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. "We had a bad penalty at the end. Ballgames like this, you can't do that."
Chandler was a team written off after the departure of Dylan Raiola and two other players in the off-season. He immediately named Heffron the starter, and outside noise questioned whether the Wolves had the same firepower to be as dominant as they've been for several years now.
The Wolves' two losses came against Basha and Centennial, two of the top three teams in the Open Division, by a combined six points. Despite the loss, Valentine, an Illinois commit, capped off his career by rushing for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Heffron went 16-of-24 for 176 yards and an interception. He also rushed for 94 yards.
Garretson said he was proud of the way his team battled.
"Our kids fought," Garretson said. "All the things they managed in the off-season, it wasn't easy. They were fearless. They went out and had fun playing football."
Highland now moves on to face Liberty, the top-ranked team in the state and unanimous favorite to win the title. That is, to those outside of the Highland community.
The Hawks came into the matchup with Chandler confident. They left with even more. Now, they're hoping to pull off what could be one of the biggest upsets of the year next Saturday at 6 p.m. at a neutral site location to be picked by the Lions.
"I think it just shows that we're at this level," Farrel said. "We can compete against everybody in the state. The good thing about this year is we've found a way to win these games."
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