CHANDLER — In their first 11 games of the 2021 prep football season, the five-time defending state champion Chandler Wolves had their fair share of close calls and narrow victories.
Saturday night marked their greatest escape of all.
Chandler survived 6 turnovers while overcoming a 14-point deficit in the final 6 minutes of regulation to completely stun the Liberty Lions and steal away a frenetic Open Division semifinal 27-21 in overtime at Austin Field.
“We deserved to win this game and somehow we did not,” Liberty Head Coach Colin Thomas said. “What can you say? The kids fought but the ball didn’t bounce our way — but we have to coach better and play better down the stretch to beat a team like that.”
Chandler Head Coach Rick Garretson breathed a sigh of relief after a miraculous comeback.
“We never have a dull semifinal,” Garretson said. “2018 with Coach Farrell and Highland, and with these guys last year and even the year before with Salpointe and the team they had. It’s never been easy and we tell the kids it’s not easy to get to the championship and win championships.
“Usually when you have six turnovers you don’t win any game, let alone a semifinal game. It goes to show the intestinal fortitude of this team, the kids and the coaching staff,” he added.
Liberty players were inconsolable after the loss. Many were down on the turf letting out their emotions as Lions coaches attempted to lift their spirits. Liberty fans who made the trip across the Valley booed the game officials off the field as they felt the Lions were on the wrong end of several questionable fourth-quarter calls.
“A couple of the calls I certainly didn’t agree with,” Thomas admitted after the game. “It is what it is.”
Saturday was unfortunately reminiscent of the 2020 playoffs when the Lions lost by 1 to the Wolves on a failed 2-point conversion in the same round of the Open playoffs. This one seemed to sting even more considering sixth-seeded Liberty had outplayed Chandler for the vast majority of the game.
For more than a half, Liberty’s opportunistic defense held high-powered Chandler off the scoreboard. Taking advantage of several Wolves turnovers, the Lions built a 14-0 halftime lead that stood until 4 minutes remained in the third quarter.
The Wolves faced a fourth-and-5 at the Lions 41. A Blaine Hipa pass fell incomplete but the Lions were flagged for pass interference, giving Chandler new life at the 26 yard line.
On the next play, Hipa found receiver Jamere Haskell along the right sideline for a 26-yard TD. Parker Orr’s PAT brought the Wolves within 14-7 with 4:15 left in the third.
Liberty needed a response and got just what they needed — a seven-play touchdown drive to increase the lead back to two scores.
Quarterback Navi Bruzon, running a two-QB system with Dom Ochoa, spearheaded the scoring march.
On third down, he tossed a 19-yard TD pass over the middle to a cutting Braylon Gardner. Nathan Hawkins added the PAT and Liberty had a comfortable 21-7 advantage at the 1:24 mark of the third quarter.
The momentum continued for the Lions when Keaton Stam picked off a Hipa pass that bounced off receiver Kyion Grayes’ hands just two plays later. Liberty could not extend the lead and eventually turned the ball over on downs.
The Lions’ D picked up the slack and forced their own fourth-down incompletion near midfield.
Liberty was looking to kill the clock but with bruising running back Zach Wallace injured earlier in the game and unable to return, the Lions managed just a three-and-out.
“We wanted to burn time but with Wallace hurt in the first quarter, it made it tougher,” Thomas said.
Liberty appeared to still be in good shape up 21-7 with 6:26 left in the game.
Hipa hit passes to Quaron Adams and Nason Coleman before a questionable targeting call against Liberty moved the ball to the Lions 30.
Another flag placed the ball at the 9 before Chandler’s Anyale Velazquez ducked over the middle for a 4-yard TD:
Orr’s PAT was blocked by Liberty’s Anthony Ruiz and the Lions held a 21-13 lead with 4:39 left in regulation.
Liberty suffered another 3-and-out and Chandler looked to tie the score. Another targeting call moved the ball to the Liberty 23. Along the way, there was a mystery stoppage of the clock on a running play that appeared to save Chandler (without any timeouts) around 20 extra seconds.
On first down, Hipa lobbed a ball toward the end zone that was intercepted by Liberty’s Gavin Dodge.
The pick was Chandler’s sixth turnover of the night and appeared to be the nail in the coffin.
The Lions were flagged for excessive celebration, moving the ball back around the 10 yard line.
Bruzon looked to knife through for a game-clinching first down but could not. With 30 seconds left, Liberty faced 4th-and-11 at its own 7.
Thomas considered taking a self-safety but instead had Hawkins punt the ball away.
“We thought about it,” the Liberty head coach explained. “But we figured if we did that, they could get the ball around the same spot and then a touchdown beats us.”
Chandler had just 30 yards to find paydirt and was aided by another Liberty targeting foul. The ball was placed at the 5 yard line with 12 seconds left.
After a delay of game against Chandler, Hipa found Velazquez on a pass around the left corner for a 10-yard TD with 2.7 seconds left in regulation.
“We knew that play was coming. We’ve seen it on film,” Thomas said. “We just lost containment.”
Needing a 2-point conversion to tie, Hipa called his own number — he faked an option pitch and scampered to the left side and into the end zone to tie the game at 21-21.
Chandler’s had all the momentum and it continued into overtime. On third and goal, Hipa tossed a looping ball to the back of the end zone that Coleman miraculously snared with one hand for a touchdown. Liberty jumped offsides on two PAT attempts, tempting Garretson to go for 2.
Franky Morales rushed up the middle but was stuffed, meaning Liberty could win with a touchdown and point after.
Bruzon rushed for 4 yards but his pass was batted down on second down. On third and goal at the 6, Bruzon was sacked for a loss of 10 yards. A Bruzon fourth-down heave from the 16 was then easily intercepted and Chandler rushed the field to celebrate an unfathomable comeback victory.
“Football doesn’t always come out perfect and pretty. The bottom line is, ‘do you have the W or not?’ And we do so we get to move on and we’re thankful for that,” Garretson said.
Early in the game, Chandler drove down the field but suffered its first of 6 giveaways. Noah Gutierrez recovered a Chandler fumble to keep the Wolves off the board.
“The opening drive we had was a great drive. Just like last year,” Garretson said. “And then we put the ball on the ground.”
The teams continued to feel out the game through a scoreless first quarter.
Liberty safety Jax Stam got in on the defensive act, nabbing an interception off a Hipa pass over the middle. That turnover sparked a 10-play drive capped off by a 15-yard Bruzon TD scramble.
Hawkins’ PAT gave Liberty a 7-0 lead with 5:29 to go before halftime.
Keaton Stam forced a Velazquez fumble on the next Chandler possession that was recovered by Dodge.
Ochoa entered and completed passes to Jordon Guevara, Grant Brunelle and Johnathan Kennedy. The 8-play drive was capped with this pass over the middle to Prince Zombo:
Liberty has come to play. @DomOchoa5 hits Prince Zombo with a 10-yard TD pass. Hawkins PAT good. WOW.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2021
#6 @LibertyFBLions 14
#2 @CHSWolvesAZ 0
1:24 - 2nd Quarter
Open Division Semifinal#AZPreps365 #WestValleyPreps @AzNewsmedia pic.twitter.com/w10b3Cmout
Hawkins’ point after made it 14-0.
Chandler attempted to put points on the board late in the half but Hipa mistakenly spiked the football on fourth down trying to save time. Liberty players ran to the locker room with a ton of momentum and a 14-0 cushion.
Chandler’s Hipa finished the night with 280 yards passing, 3 TDs and 3 INTs. Liberty’s Ochoa had 118 total yards and a passing score while Bruzon tallied 121 total yards, a passing score and a rushing score.
Liberty (9-3) sees the season end in the Open semis for the second straight year. The comeback win propels second-seeded Chandler (11-1) into the Open finals where they will face fifth-seeded Saguaro (11-1), a 31-24 upset winner over #1 seed and previously unbeaten Hamilton in the other semifinal. Chandler will be gunning for its sixth straight title and seventh in the past 8 seasons.
Thomas said he will miss this senior class, who left everything they had on the field and can hang their collective hats on Liberty’s 2019 6A state football championship.
“They did everything we asked of them all year long,” Thomas said. “They fought. But make no mistake, we will be back.”
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