If there’s a playbook on how to handle a high school infraction, last year’s Gilbert Highland team might as well have written it.
At quarterback, Gage Dayley led the show, passing for 2,652 yards and 29 touchdowns. He could use his legs, sure, but Dayley’s calling card was his passing ability. The result was a dynamic unit on the ground and in the air. The Hawks finished averaging 28.9 points per game.
This year is different. On last week’s trip to take on Utah powerhouse Lone Peak, Highland had just 117 total offensive yards in a 13-0 loss.
But even in that loss, Highlands coach Brock Farrel saw encouraging signs. He saw a defense that “can play with anyone” and a special teams unit that is “really good”. On Friday, the Hawks paired that with a much more consistent offensive performance to win 27-6 over Goodyear Desert Edge, which entered as the Republic’s top-ranked team in 5A.
Even after the win, Farrel believes Highland’s offense can still improve. When asked after the game if the unit was “clicking”, Farrel chided.
“I wouldn’t say we click,” Farrel said. “We’re pretty tough right now.”
What Highland’s offense did, however, was play its game. It’s a unit anchored by Caleb Lomu, a 6-foot-5 left tackle with the Big Ten and SEC offers. So without a quarterback like Dayley, Farrel challenged his team to dominate on the field.
“I just tried to talk confidence in our O-line,” Farrel said. “I was like, ‘Hey, I want to run the same run play 13 times in a row if we can do that and you have to take control of the game.’ I think they really accepted that.
After a slow attacking start for both teams, it was actually a passing game that put Highland on the scoreboard. Quarterback Joseph Walter rolled right and found Cooper Scott — a star defensive end who rarely plays on offense — stepping down the left sideline. Scott broke a tackle and entered the end zone for a 60-yard score.
“It really energized us,” Farrel said. “It showed that our quarterback is lethal. He’s not just going to throw routes or miss. It showed that you can’t just put nine people in the box and stop our attack.
From there, Highland’s racing game took over. Chance Cauthen, the Hawks’ battering ram on the goal line, had a pair of short-range touchdowns. Later, Carson Mullenaux iced the game with his own 24-yard rushing score.
“Hit them in the mouth,” Cauthen said. “Hit them hard. And a little show them what Highland football is all about.
Although he ultimately put 27 points on the board, it was Highland’s defense that impressed the most.
Although Desert Edge also lost a quarterback who changed the program upon graduation to Adryan Lara, the Scorpions have something Highland hasn’t: a young sensation billed as the next big thing under the center. In two games, Hezekiah Millender lived up to that billing, throwing for 540 total yards and nine touchdowns on a pair of wins.
On Friday, Millender was unable to repeat that success.
“Make him read some stuff, he has to be mature, he has to play the whole game, take what we give him many times in a row,” Farrel said. “Sixteen-year-old boys don’t usually do that.”
Highland’s game plan was to take away deep shots and obstruct midfield, forcing Millender to make mature decisions. Although Millender had some impressive moments, he repeatedly struggled to find open receivers and ended up holding the ball too long, allowing Highland’s pass to reach him.
“If he’s going to complete a pass, it’s going to have to be a little five-yard hitch or a road off,” Farrel said. “Go ahead, I dare you, throw 17 snags in a row all the way down the court. High school students won’t.
Instead, Millender’s night ended in a moment of appropriate frustration. With less than 30 seconds left in the game and the score out of control, he rolled a left, found no one open, and threw an interception in the end zone.
Above the stadium speakers, Sweet Caroline roared as Desert Edge walked off the field, their Open Division ambitions dashed. On the other side, the Hawks celebrated, having proven that, even without Dayley, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Theo Mackie covers Arizona High School Sports and the Arizona Diamondbacks. He can be reached by email at [email protected] and on Twitter @theo_mackie.