To the naked eye, they were garden-variety celebrations.
Chandler Hamilton’s players hugged one another, Scottsdale Chaparral’s players danced on the awards podium. Cameras flashed, reporters scurried about the field and cell phones recorded the sounds for family members and friends who couldn’t make the trek to Glendale or Tempe. There were hugs, high-fives, smiles and even a few tears.
But then Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle embraced his wife, Carrie, and you sensed a deeper meaning. As Hamilton senior running back Michael Allen stood quietly amidst the chaos, you saw something more than satisfaction in his eyes. And when Chaparral senior tackle Andrew Gustafson raised his arms skyward, you had the feeling he was motioning to someone unseen. You were right on all three counts.
Three days before the 5A Division I title game between Hamilton and Mesa at University of Phoenix Stadium, Allen’s father died in his sleep of apparent complications following an auto accident five years earlier.
In March, Chaparral senior wide receiver Brandon Martin died of an overdose of oxycodone, a painkiller. On Nov. 1, Chaparral senior left tackle Andrew Gustafson lost his mother to cancer. And the very next day, Carrie Ragle suffered an ectopic pregnancy, an abnormal pregnancy in which the baby develops outside the womb, just seven weeks into her term. The baby was lost.
"We’ve overcome a lot of things," a red-eyed Ragle said after the Firebirds beat the Padres, 34-21, to capture their fourth overall state title and first at the 5A-II level. "I’m so proud of these kids and the way they stay focused through all the pain. We’ll never forget the ones we lost, but I think we gave them something to be proud of tonight."
Hamilton coach Steve Belles expressed similar sentiments for Allen.
"I lost my dad about three years ago," he said. "I would hate to experience that as a teenager. He showed a lot of courage."
The state title was Hamilton’s fifth overall (all since 2003), cementing the Huskies as the team of the decade. It also marked the first time in Hamilton’s existence that it posted an undefeated season (14-0). The Huskies defense put on a clinic, holding Mesa (9-5) to four yards rushing while forcing six turnovers, including safety Devon Carrington’s 60-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead as the first-half clock expired. Allen led the offense with a game-high 99 yards rushing on 18 carries.
In the 5A-II game, Chaparral took advantage of sloppy play by Marcos (12-2), which had shocked top-ranked, three-time defending champ Peoria Centennial one week earlier in the state semifinals. Statistically, Marcos dominated the first half, with 213 rushing yards and 14 minutes and 51 seconds of possession time. But the Padres also committed 11 penalties for 156 yards, and had three turnovers, including a fumble in their own end zone that Chaparral's Chris Fox recovered to pull the Firebirds within 7-6.
Marcos de Niza had been a plus-26 in turnover ratio entering the game.
"Hard to say why we made so many mistakes," said Marcos de Niza running back Ramon Abreu, whose club finished with 16 penalties for 186 yards. "I wouldn't say it was because of the big stage, but you can't do that against a great team. That's obvious."
The Padres also dealt with the loss of star senior receiver Justin Rodriguez. After catching a first-quarter touchdown on a fade pattern on which he outleaped two defenders, Rodriguez suffered a left-shoulder injury on the first play of the second quarter, diving for a screen pass, and sat out the rest of the second quarter.
With Marcos de Niza driving in the third quarter, Rodriguez landed on the shoulder again while diving for a ball in the end zone. That blow essentially eliminated him from the game plan
"That's what hurt even more, that I couldn't play at 100 percent," said Rodriguez, who practiced all week with an AC sprain suffered against Centennial. "They weren't going to let me play but this was my last game as a Padre. I had to be out there."
While Rodriguez was struggling, Chaparral senior running back Dwayne Garrett was shining. The senior carried 16 times for 107 yards and a score. He also had a 63-yard touchdown catch.
"Greatest feeling in the world to do this on the big stage," Garrett said. "We overcame a lot this year and now we can say we’re state champs.
"Chaparral Firebirds, No.1, baby!"
Craig Morgan is a freelance writer who has covered professional, college and high school sports in the Phoenix area for the past 17 years. He currently serves as the Phoenix correspondent for CBSSports.com, covering the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns and other pro and college teams in Arizona. He also writes a weekly column and other features for The Arizona Republic. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.