Zone Read: Saguaro-Chandler 3.0

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It gets no bigger than Saguaro-Chandler Friday night at Austin Field.

I don’t feel “marquee matchup” is strong enough to describe, considered by most, the two flagship programs in Arizona High School football. With the backdrop of last year’s Open Division Championship thriller in December, these two giants will face off with all eyes watching this 10-month sequel intently.

The Wolves defeated Saguaro in the first Open Division title game back in 2019.

For me, the biggest key will be how Saguaro handles Chandler’s physicality up front on both sides of the ball. The Sabercats’ trenches have been tested in early games with Bergen Catholic (NJ), and Queen Creek, who held their own in a hard-fought 13-8 Week 2 loss to #SagU.

“Zone Read” reached out a handful of people much smarter on these such things for a closer look at Saguaro-Chandler 3.0.

Zach Alvira – East Valley Tribune,

“I’m most looking forward to seeing if last week’s performance by Saguaro against O’Connor was the Sabercat offense finally clicking. They struggled to put up points in the first couple of weeks but seemed to have figured out the kinks despite missing Zaccheus Cooper and Deric English. Chandler’s defense flies to the ball and they’re big up front, which presents a similar challenge Bergen Catholic did for Saguaro. 
“On the flip side, how does Chandler come into this game? Obviously, the Wolves want revenge for last season. But it will be interesting to see if they can keep some emotions in check to avoid penalties. So far, they’ve done great with that. But they haven’t faced Saguaro, the only team to dethrone them in the last six years. I’m excited to see the outcome in this one. It could go either way.”

Ralph Amsden –

“The thing I’m most looking forward to in this matchup is to see Chandler continue to re-establish the running game. The Wolves five-consecutive-championship-run had one common thread, and that’s an average of well over 225 rushing yards per game. Last year, that total was down around 155, which is ironically the same amount of rushing yards Chandler had the last time they failed to even make a championship game, in a loss to Desert Ridge in 2015. The offensive line, including impressive sophomore Andrew Dudley, and RB Ca’lil Valentine, who I had a chance to talk to Chase Lucas about this week as someone who reminds me very much of his running style, have the Wolves back in a position of playing power football. In turn, Chandler is looking like the Chandler of old.

“On the Saguaro end, watching them improve has been one of the most intriguing things about the 2022 season. It’s becoming commonplace to watch Saguaro learn about themselves and make adjustments, not only as the season goes on, but in the course of a single game. Does anyone remember what Saguaro looked like after halftime of the 2020 Open Division championship? While I think Rick Garretson and Chandler as the best game-planning staff in Arizona, I hold Jason Mohns and Saguaro up as potentially the best in-game adjustment staff at the prep level in America.”

Cody Cameron –

“Friday’s game is the third round of a heavy-weight fight. Chandler won round one by defeating the Sabercats back in the 2019 Open State Championship game and Saguaro got their revenge last season in the Open State Championship game. Chandler QB Dylan Raiola versus Saguaro QB Devon Dampier will be the headline, but I think an even better matchup will be Saguaro’s offensive line against Chandler’s front seven on defense. Saguaro has one of the best OL coaches in the state in Mark Martinez, and his unit gets the daunting task of trying to block Chandler’s Amauri Washington and the rest of the Wolves’ front. Whoever wins that battle at the line of scrimmage, will win this football game.”

Claudia Collins –

I’ve had this Open Division Championship rematch highlighted, circled and underscored in my calendar since the AIA released the schedule for the 2022 season. This rematch will be interesting with the Wolves displaying their nationwide top-prospect QB for the first time against the open defending champs.  I imagine Chandler is going into this game hungry. The same way Bishop Gorman went into their rematch against Hamilton…we saw how that turned out.

“I think a win for Saguaro would be a huge boost for Devon Dampier and he’s already been off to a hot start this season. I’d say Saguaro has had a tougher schedule to kick off the season. Having had that test against Bergen Catholic, regardless of the result, may pay off in Week 4. This matchup would’ve been really interesting further into the season…but something tells me we might see them face off in December (again).”

Cameron Cox – 12 Sports

“Once again – the biggest high school football game in the country is right here in Arizona. Saguaro-Chandler has the potential to be the game of the year, an Open Division final preview again, and maybe one of the best games we’ve seen in a very long time. Get there EARLY – it will be standing room only at Chandler HS!!

“I watched Chandler play last week against Notre Dame Prep. They’re big, fast and hungry to get back on top. Ca’lil Valentine runs behind a massive o-line that gives junior QB Dylan Raiola plenty of time to throw. Oregon commit A’mauri Washington is nearly unblockable, and that defense hasn’t given up a point in 10-quarters. Should be a great test for Saguaro’s o-line that is building around four new starters. The Sabercats have one of the best and most exciting players in the state in QB Devon Dampier. Right now, Saguaro is the king of AZHSFB after beating Chandler in the Open Division title game last year. They will remain the kings until someone takes that title away from them. Let’s get ready to rumble!”

Jordan Hamm –

“This matchup always makes my ears perk up because I think of how great it is that these teams can play consistently. Think back to all the ‘what if’ seasons when both teams dominated their respect divisions and never got to square off.

“Chandler seems like a team on a mission and have been so impressive. Saguaro played a really tough out-of-state opponent and had to grind out a Queen Creek win earlier this year, but the Sabercats are starting to really click.

“These are two of the best coaching staffs going head-to-head and two groups that know each other well. It should be a great game Friday but also just the opening act for a potential meet-up in the Open Division bracket.”

Buckle your seats belt. 

Luberda’s Legacy

If you’ve consumed this column over the past several years, or are even somewhat familiar with Arizona High School football, you know the name Andy Luberda.

The architect of, and frequent contributor to, left us far too soon on December 29, 2020.

Friday night in Queen Creek, two schools he covered with tremendous passion, Queen Creek High and ALA Queen Creek, will honor his legacy.

“Andy Luberda was a man of passion,” Queen Creek head coach, and close friend of Luberda, Travis Schureman said to the “Zone Read.” “He not only loved Queen Creek, he loved all the teams in the Southeast Valley he covered. When he talked about the teams, he talked about them with a reverence and an importance.”

Schureman paused, then continued.

“I think he always underestimated who he was, and what he brought to the table, because he was a very humble man. He cared deeply about all kids. Not just one team, but all kids.”

He cared most about his own kid, son Kade Luberda, who will be attending the first Andy Luberda Classic.

“I’m so excited for Friday,” Kade, now 22, said to the “Zone Read.” “Seeing familiar faces and just being in attendance for two schools my dad covered the most. It’s so special for me because this would be the utmost honor for my dad. This is the highest respect they could have shown for him. My mother and I could not be more honored.”

For Luberda, no school was too small or too far of a drive out to the county line. He was a regular at Superior High School and Casa Grande, as well as Poston Butte, Combs, Ben Franklin, and the ALA schools – many of the before mentioned in their infancy of existence.

“He was that way because he cared about kids,” Schureman explained. “He wanted kids to know that they were seen, they had value, and they were special.”

This week has been a time of reflection for all of us who knew Andy, his snarky sense of humor, and warm smile.

“Any time we spent together meant the most to me and is what I miss most,” Kade said, referencing his dad’s favorite “Seinfeld” lines and their dinner talks about sports, life, everything. “Watching sports, talking high school football, driving to work. Never a dull moment.” 

In a game you always hoped would be played, I know those stadium lights will be shining a little brighter at Queen Creek High School.

“I’m positive my dad will be in attendance,” Kade said.

Andy, I miss you my friend.

Hitting the Ground Running

For all of us who have watched Arizona State head coaches mostly ignore in-state high school talent over the past decade-plus, this late-week social media post only ramps up the intrigue around the remainder of the Sun Devil season.

This is not only seizing an opportunity, it’s owning the moment.

The best part is, I know he’ll keep this promise.