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A group of Highland football players have gathered throughout the summer to put in extra work at Discovery Park running hills with linebackers coach Dominic Willis and defensive backs coach D’Angelo Dunbar. To them, it’s their way of continuing to improve to defend their 6A title.

(Dave Minton/GSN Staff)

For several weeks Highland football players have gathered outside of summer workouts to get extra conditioning at nearby Discovery Park in Gilbert.

The workouts, led by linebackers coach Dominic Willis and defensive backs coach D’Angelo Dunbar, are voluntary. But the two said they averaged at least 20 athletes per session. Even with the team’s California camp looming, over 20 athletes showed up on a Thursday morning at 7 a.m. to run a series of hills.

Every athlete that has participated has grown stronger from the workouts. But there are still times where the large hill can be a humbling experience. “Die now, rest later,” Willis screamed as the players made their way up and down the hill. It’s a blunt saying, but it represents the culture that has been established within the Highland football program since the arrival of head coach Brock Farrel and his staff six seasons ago.

“To see this, to be a part of this and to see it develop, I’m still on cloud nine with it,” Willis said. “This is all coach Brock. He allows us to do this. He doesn’t fight us on our opinions. He’s the leader. He’s the one that is keeping this afloat.”

Willis wasn’t initially a part of Farrel’s staff when he was hired to take over the program. Dunbar recruited him four years ago, shortly after Highland’s rise to become a 6A power began.

He immediately made an impact and helped turn Highland’s defense into a group other teams feared. He also became a mentor and motivator through his brand, “Outwork the Known,” which is commonly displayed as the acronym “OWTK” with a hashtag.

The meaning is simple: Outwork yourself and whatever situation you are in. It’s a mindset to better yourself, one that goes beyond sports. But it’s one Highland has embraced by putting it on coach’s shirts, player backpacks and shorts and on the 7 on 7 uniforms Highland wore throughout the summer.

“‘Outwork the Known’ just hits different to me,” Willis said. “When you feel like you’re at your worst or your lowest, outwork that situation. Compete with yourself. Compete with the world.

“It feels good to be out and I see somebody with the brand. I was on an airplane, and I had an ‘Outwork the Known’ hat on and someone said, ‘that’s Highland.’ It was cool to get acknowledged.”

Before this staff’s arrival in 2017, Highland had only ever made the semifinals twice since 1993. The first trip came in 1994 under coach Mike Epperson. The second 10 years later under Preston Jones.

Farrel and his staff led the Hawks to the semifinals in just their second season. Two years later in 2020, Highland made its first-ever championship appearance in the 6A Conference title game. The Hawks fell to Chaparral but returned in 2021 and avenged their loss to the Firebirds by beating them for the championship.

For the first time ever, Highland is preparing to defend a championship. It’s unfamiliar territory for the players. But the coaches remain confident.

“I love this group,” Dunbar said. “There are guys that look good in t-shirts and shorts. But we always wonder whether if they can do it in full pads and on Friday night. If they can, I think we are going to double back. We are going to make some noise.”

Senior quarterback Joseph Walter is being handed the reigns of Highland’s high-powered offense this season. He takes over for three-year starter Gage Dayley.

Walter said it’s an opportunity he has been waiting for. He got a taste of what it’s like to lead the team last season when he nearly led Highland to an upset victory over Chandler in the regular season with Dayley sidelined due to an injury.

He felt ready in the moment back then and has the same feeling now. But he doesn’t want to feel too comfortable.

“I know my spot on the team is pretty solid,” Walter said. “But if I let myself get comfortable with where I’m at then I’m not going to improve and be at the level I should be when we face those good teams.”

As has been the case during Highland’s rise to prowess, its defense is once again ready for a big year. The Hawks return a healthy amount of talent at each position on that side of the ball, including at safety with senior Zeke Nautu.

He started on last year’s championship defense and has only grown as a leader this off-season. He is one Dunbar is excited about the most. Nautu, even with expectations for him high, doesn’t feel the pressure.

He’s embraced the leadership role and has made sure his teammates know another championship won’t be handed to them. They have to work for it.

“It’s hard enough to win a championship but it’s harder to repeat,” Nautu said. “We aren’t going to get there just by riding off of what the seniors got us last year. We have to keep working.”

Highland returned from its camp in California this past week. As always, it’s the team’s final get-away to bond and set goals for themselves for the upcoming season.

Last year, Highland was left out of the Open Division tournament after losing its final three games to Hamilton, Chandler and Basha, the top three seeds. This year, they’re determined to make a splash in the big dance.

Outworking the known is who Highland has become. It’s no longer a pushover program in the East Valley.

“We’re going for the Open,” Dunbar said. “The 6A is good, but we’ve been there now the last two seasons. We want that Open.”