Highland preparing

Highland senior linebacker Chance Cauthen leads a defense that returns enough talent to make a run at the Open Division this season, which would allow the program to take that next step as a state power. (Dave Minton/GSN Staff) 

The rise of the Highland High School football program has been historic under head coach Brock Farrel.

Before his arrival, the Hawks were a mid-level program, finishing around .500 on a yearly basis and making the postseason sparingly. It took time for Highland to grab its footing under Farrel. But when it did, it elevated to a new level quickly.

Highland is coming off of back-to-back trips to the 6A Conference state championship. The Hawks lost to Chaparral in 2020 but bounced back last season and beat the Firebirds for the title. But to this day, they want more. They don’t necessarily feel too much pressure to repeat as champions. They want to compete for the Open Division title instead.

And according to Farrel, it will take a more difficult schedule to get there. Which is exactly what he set out to do this season.

“It’s what the great programs do. They play other great teams from around the country,” Farrel said. “If we say we want to play in the Open, you can’t play nobody then get bounced in the first round, that would be embarrassing. I want to prepare these kids for the goal we set which is to play for the big boy title.”

Highland, now in the second week of the season after opening against nearby rival Desert Ridge on Friday, will travel by plane to Highland, Utah to face Lone Peak, a perennial power just south of Salt Lake City, on Friday.

It’s a game Farrel said they tried to set up in 2020 before the pandemic brought those plans to a halt. Last year he had Lone Peak on his team’s schedule but didn’t want to take the risk of Gilbert Public Schools not yet approving out-of-state travel.

So, he had to cancel.

“I didn’t want to risk not having 10 games,” Farrel said. “We tried again for the third time, and we got it. One of the bonuses of going to Vegas last year was our seniors this year got to experience it. So it won’t be really new to them.”

That brings Highland to this season, where it is trying to break into the Open Division for the first time and hoping a national opponent will help accomplish that goal.

More than that, though, it offers a unique experience for the Highland football program. This is just its second opponent from outside of Arizona in program history. The first came last December in Las Vegas when the Hawks faced Florida’s Chaminade-Madonna in the Geico State Champions Bowl Series on ESPN.

It was the first taste of what competition looks like outside of Arizona. It was also the nation’s first look at a Highland team that has quickly become one of 6A’s fiercest competitors.

And key starters on that team, especially on defense, return. They want to put Highland on the map early on this season, and it will come in Utah.

“It’s a super cool experience to have the opportunity to go up and travel to Utah,” Cauthen said. “We knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime to go travel. Playing in a different state, a lot of kids haven’t done that before.”

Lone Peak enters the matchup against Highland having already played four games. It opened the season with a loss to Timpview (Utah) before beating Alemany (California). The Knights recently took on and beat one of the top teams from Nevada in Liberty and had a bye week to prepare for the Hawks.

The Knights are led up front by offensive lineman Joe Brown, a Utah commit and one of the top in his position in Utah. They also return their leading receiver from last year in Cole Christiansen but have a new quarterback and running back leading the way this season.

Highland is in a similar position with Joseph Walter taking over the offense after three seasons of Gage Dayley. Walter wanted his shot at leading the Hawks, and he plans to make the most of the opportunity.

“I’ve been waiting,” Walter said. “Waiting since I was a freshman basically, to show them what I’ve got. I think with Lone Peak, we need to sharpen up. It’s going to be a lot of fun. My favorite part of the season is traveling with the team.”

Lucky for him, he has one of the best offensive line units in the state protecting him, led by AJ Dutchover and Caleb Lomu, a five-star tackle with offers to nearly every major Power Five program in the country. He recently picked up offers from Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee, among others in Pac-12, Big 10 and Big 12 conferences.

Highland will be young this season at the receiver position but will continue to thrive on defense with Joseph Allen at safety, Cauthen leading the linebackers and 6-foot-5, 355-pound Mercer Peterson on the defensive line.

The Hawks have the talent to make a run and prove themselves to be a power program in the state yet again. Farrel said he’s excited to get the season going to see what how his players respond to new goals.

“(The season) could go one of two ways. We could be great and finally make the open and make some noise,” Farrel said. “We’ve got kids where we could do really well, or we won’t and we could have three losses and play in the 6A again. I’m hoping we can get over the hump and our seniors prove to be the leaders we think they are.”