By Brittany Bowyer | Photos by Arianna Grainey
PHOENIX — The seventh-seeded Chaparral Firebirds are the 6A football state champions after knocking off No. 4 Highland for a 24-14 victory Saturday afternoon at Desert Vista High School.
While the Firebirds looked solid offensively, the lights-out performance by the defense is what ultimately won them the crown.
“They say defense wins championships, and I know we may not be known for defense, and offensive line play and run game, but we were today and were throughout the playoffs,” Chaparral coach Brent Barnes said.
“Straight dogs” is what running back Jared Williams called his team’s defense. “Those are my guys, man. I love them.”
Highland opened the game with a seven-yard touchdown run by senior Max Davis to put the Hawks on top 7-0 with 6:49 left in the first quarter.
“Max Davis, No. 27, he’s a great running back,” Barnes said. “We knew coming in we couldn’t let him beat us because he’s too good.”
Chaparral wasted no time answering with running back Diego Echavarria punching it in from five yards, making the score 7-7 with about a minute to go in the opening period.
The Firebirds defense held strong for the remainder of the half, causing issues for Highland quarterback Gage Dayley and continually forcing the Hawks to punt.
With 14 seconds before halftime, Williams lined up in Wildcat formation and ran the ball across the goal line for a touchdown. The kick was good, giving Chaparral a 14-7 lead at the break.
The Firebirds added to their lead with a field goal to start the second half, but Highland responded when Dayley found junior Jace Patton in the end zone for a touchdown, trimming the deficit to three points entering the fourth quarter.
After the Hawks missed a potential tying field goal, Williams scored his second touchdown to restore the 10-point advantage at 24-14 with 5:04 remaining.
Highland still had time to make something happen, but the Hawks fumbled at midfield on their next possession. After forcing a punt, a pass by Dayley was tipped by a teammate and intercepted by Jack Whitten, securing the win for Chaparral.
“They executed well,” Patton said with tears in his eyes. “You know, it just came down to we had a couple problems at the end of the game, and they executed on them. Nothing you can do at that point.”
The Firebirds totaled 128 yards on the ground. Junior quarterback Brayten Silbor completed 17 of 24 passes for 160 yards and zero interceptions.
“Brayten is as good as they get. I’ve been saying it; I think people will now start to listen and watch,” Barnes said.
The coach also praised Williams’ toughness. The star senior sat out last week’s semifinal win over Sandra Day O’Connor with hamstring tightness.
“Williams, God bless him, he couldn’t play the way he wanted to, had to sit out last week, and he tried to give it a go today and was honestly playing about 20 percent on one leg after the first drive,” Barnes said.
Added Silbor: “I think it just shows we wanted it. We didn’t even know if we were going to finish our season, so we just had to take every game like it was our last. We did that, or I feel like we did that. We played with heart and we won.”
Highland’s normally dominant ground game behind Davis was held to 81 yards on 27 attempts. Dayley was 14 for 22 with one interception and a fumble.
“They were a great team,” Silbor said. “I really didn’t want to play anyone else but Highland because in my opinion, we were the best two teams in the bracket and that’s who I wanted to play.”
For the Firebirds, after a bumpy season filled with turbulence from week to week, being able to celebrate a state championship is something they hardly expected to happen. The team missed the first three weeks of the season because of COVID-19 quarantine.
“It was a bumpy road, it really was,” Williams said. “But when we came out, we were like, ‘We need to do what we need to do,’ and obviously it worked out.
“We’re extremely blessed. Those are my guys, those are my brothers since freshman year, and it’s amazing.”