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The four years since Christian Kirk was seen blowing through Scottsdale Chaparral’s secondary in Scottsdale Saguaro’s 41-14 rout felt like eternity.
It’s always an event when Saguaro and Chaparral play each other in football. Sometimes, a coach’s decision, the differences in enrollment sizes, have kept this game from being played. A high school season feels empty without a Chaparral-Saguaro game.
They’re back again, this Friday at Saguaro, like it should be. And alumni and fans will be out in droves.
This was once upon a time the greatest high school football rivalry in Arizona with strong coaches’ voices, overflow crowds, future college stars, neighborhood and state bragging rights on the line.
Saguaro leads the all-time series that dates to 1973, 20-17.
Here is an historical timeline on how this developed into a must-see rivalry:
Cats dominate early
Chaparral’s first team was 1973. It was coached by Les Unruh, who was 7-21-2 in five seasons. Saguaro, led by coach Bob Keller, already was established. The Firebirds lost to Saguaro, 21-19. The next year, Saguaro beat Chaparral again, 17-6. Chaparral managed only six points in three meetings from 1975-77. It took seven years for Chaparral to achieve its first winning season and finally beat Saguaro, 52-41, in 1979. That team was coached by Tom Stincic and fueled by bruising running back/linebacker Jeff Harper. Saguaro continued to rule the rivalry, winning seven of the next nine meetings. Things bottomed out at Chaparral in 1983 and ’84 when it didn’t win a game.
State final breakthrough
Chaparral finally started to find consistent success against Saguaro later in Jim Bevell’s Firebirds coaching tenure (38-52-2 from 1985-93). The Firebirds beat Saguaro four years in a row from 1989-92, but 1993 began a four-year stretch when the teams didn’t meet. During that time, Saguaro rolled to its first state championship in 1995 with a young coach, Tim Beck, who is now the offensive coordinator at Texas. The Sabercats were led by one of the greatest two-way players in state history, running back/safety Mike Brown, who in 2014, was chosen as the No. 1 player in Saguaro football history by azcentral sports. It would be another 10 years before Saguaro held a gold ball in a big stadium.
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Estabrook changes culture
Chaparral hit rock bottom again in 1994, in Gary Mauldin’s only season as head coach, when it went 0-10. Ron Estabrook, who had retired from coaching in the Lake Tahoe area and was settling into an insurance business in Scottsdale, was pulled back into coaching. In his first year, in 1995, Chaparral went 6-5 and won the East Sky Region championship. The Firebirds bought into the no-nonsense style of their coach, who made sure the feeder programs’ top players weren’t jetting off to private-school Phoenix St. Mary’s. Estabrook won his first four meetings against Saguaro, starting in 1997 with a 21-0 shutout. The 1999 and 2000 teams that beat Saguaro by scores of 48-6 and 23-0 went undefeated and captured their first two 4A state championships, rolling up 28 consecutive wins. Saguaro took back the rivalry in 2001 with a 42-7 win. Saguaro beat Chaparral again in 2002, 16-0. But that was Chaparral’s only loss that year. It went on to capture the 4A crown. The late 1990s and early 2000s featured verbal battles in the press between Estabrook and Saguaro coach Stuart Goldstein. They filled reporters’ notebooks. Neither held back when it came to voicing their opinions on the other team. They cranked up the rivalry to a fevered pitch.
Sanders vs. Ragle
When Estabrook hung it up for good after the 2006 season, the Chaparral program was turned over to his defensive coordinator, Charlie Ragle (now an assistant coach at Cal). Ragle brought in his college buddy, Conrad Hamilton, a former NFL defensive back, to be his defensive coordinator. David Huffine remained as offensive coordinator. They were a perfect combination with Ragle’s fire, Huffine’s calm and Hamilton’s edginess. After Mike Reardon led Saguaro to its second state championship in 2006, his defensive coordinator, John Sanders, took over the program. And Sanders’ swagger and unfiltered commentary only irritated Ragle and hyped the rivalry to an all-time high. Sanders won his first three meetings against Ragle, including two shutouts in the 2008 season — 21-0 and 38-0. They were Chaparral’s only losses. The second came in the 4A final when Sanders turned receiver Erik Brown loose at quarterback out of the wildcat. He ran for 204 yards and two TDs on eight carries. Saguaro didn’t complete a pass in the rout and attempted only five passes. Sanders didn’t lose a game in his first two seasons as head coach.
In 2009 and 2010, the teams took a break from each other, as Chaparral moved up a level, while Saguaro stayed at 4A-I. Saguaro won the 4A-I title and Chaparral took the 5A-II title in 2009. Barbs were traded in the media between the coaches with Ragle wanting to keep Saguaro on the schedule. In 2011, when Saguaro’s D.J. Foster and Chaparral’s Davonte’ Neal were among the top two recruits in the state, they got back on the schedule — the last game of the regular-season. Sanders never wanted this game. He wasn’t kidding when he said earlier in the year he would sit his starters for the game to keep them healthy for the state playoffs. But Fox Sports was scheduled to regionally televise the game, playing up the Foster vs. Neal story line. It was no bluff by Sanders, who kept Foster out and played only one regular, freshman Christian Kirk, who dazzled on kick returns. There were plenty of opportunities for Kirk to return kicks, because Chaparral blew out the Sabercats 65-0, turning the game into a mockery. The next week, in the first round of the playoffs, Foster scored a single-game, state-record 10 touchdowns against Peoria Sunrise Mountain. Both schools won their respective conference state championships. But it was the end of the Sanders and Ragle eras. Sanders was basically ran out of Saguaro. He landed a gig in Todd Graham’s ASU program in operations with Foster being Graham’s first big in-state prize. Ragle moved on to Arizona, where he joined Rich Rodriguez’s staff.
Mohns takes over
Jason Mohns, who didn’t look much older than the players, was elevated from offensive coordinator to head coach at Saguaro in 2012. Huffine took over at Chaparral. Chaparral won that 2012 meeting, 38-20. It beat the Sabercats again in 2013, 52-27. But 2013 marked the beginning of Saguaro’s run of a state-record five state championships. Chaparral appeared in only one state final since Ragle left — in Huffine’s second year and last year coaching — losing to 14-0 Tucson Salpointe Catholic in the Division II final. The schools played just one more time, in 2014, and Saguaro dominated from beginning to end with Kirk having more than 100 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards. Hamilton was the coach at Chaparral. Since then, Mohns has been a rock at Saguaro, building it into a magnet for players to try to get college scholarship offers. Since its last state title, Chaparral has turned over the program to four coaches: Huffine, Hamilton, Thomas Lewis, and now Brent Barnes.
Barnes is in his first year as head coach at Chaparral, bringing with him his high-powered offense from Norman (Okla.) North and getting it to play into the strengths of three junior dynamos — quarterback Jack Miller, tailback Darvon Hubbard and wide receiver/kicker Tommy Christakos. All three have taken off under Barnes, and the Birds are 3-0 for the first time since that 14-0 2011 title team. Saguaro, meanwhile, is locked and loaded with 19 players having Division I college football offers, most of those on a defense that is led by Arizona State-commit linebacker/safety Connoer Soelle and the nation’s top-rated 2020 cornerback, Kelee Ringo.
1973 – Saguaro 21, Chaparral 19
1974 – Saguaro 17, Chaparral 6
1975 – Saguaro 21, Chaparral 0
1976 – Saguaro 32, Chaparral 0
1977 – Saguaro 62, Chaparral 6
1978 – Saguaro 17, Chaparral 13
1979 – Chaparral 52, Saguaro 41
1980 – Saguaro 14, Chaparral 0
1981 – Saguaro 28, Chaparral 7
1982 – Chaparral 14, Saguaro 0
1983 – Saguaro 24, Chaparral 6
1984 – Saguaro 14, Chaparral 0
1985 – Chaparral 17, Saguaro 13
1986 – Saguaro 22, Chaparral 9
1987 – Saguaro 26, Chaparral 13
1988 – Saguaro 38, Chaparral 13
1989 – Chaparral 13, Saguaro 7
1990 – Chaparral 8, Saguaro 3
1991 – Chaparral 16, Saguaro 13
1992 – Chaparral 31, Saguaro 12
1997 – Chaparral 21, Saguaro 0
1998 – Chaparral 21, Saguaro 13
1999 – Chaparral 48, Saguaro 6
2000 – Chaparral 23, Saguaro 0
2001 – Saguaro 42, Chaparral 7
2002 – Saguaro 16, Chaparral 0
2003 – Chaparral 49, Saguaro 7
2004 – Saguaro 24, Chaparral 22
2005 – Chaparral 35, Saguaro 7
2006 – Chaparral 24, Saguaro 21
2007 – Saguaro 31, Chaparral 28
2008 – Saguaro 21, Chaparral 0
2008 – Saguaro 38, Chaparral 0 (4A final)
2011 – Chaparral 65, Saguaro 0
2012 – Chaparral 38, Saguaro 20
2013 — Chaparral 52, Saguaro 27
2014 – Saguaro 41, Chaparral 14
To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at [email protected] or 602-316-8827. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.