Eli Sanders relished his opportunities with Chandler The Chandler Arizonan

Eli Sanders relished his opportunities with Chandler

December 29th, 2020 Chandler Arizona Staff
Eli Sanders relished his opportunities with Chandler
Sports and Recreation

By Eric Newman
Contributing Writer

The opportunity to play in games like the 2020 AIA Open State Championship Finals was what drew running back Eli Sanders to transfer to Chandler from Mountain Pointe between his sophomore and junior year.

Now a senior, Sanders nearly broke down with emotion reflecting on his performance in Chandler’s 23-21 win over Hamilton in Saturday’s title game. He had 131 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Huskies, likely the most physical and talented defense Chandler had played all season.

“These are the type of games we live for. This is the type of game every athlete wants,” Sanders said.

His tremendous night got started early. On the first play from scrimmage, Sanders took a handoff right, eluded a couple of tacklers, and sprinted up the field for an 80-yard touchdown run. It gave the Wolves a 6-0 lead just 18 seconds into the game that they would never squander.

“All week we were just harping on that first play, coming out with our momentum,” Sanders said. “We just needed to come out there fast, strong and physical.”

Running the ball well was a necessity to succeed against Hamilton. The Huskies’ pass defense was among the best in Arizona this year. It proved early that it could pressure senior quarterback Mikey Keene and limit Chandler’s gains through the air.

But, behind a massive offensive line, the Wolves kept the clock running and ultimately scored enough to win by pounding Hamilton with the run, mostly with Sanders. Senior offensive lineman Seth Smith took a moment to reflect postgame about Sanders and the group of ‘amazing’ tailbacks.

“The amount of talent we have at running back I don’t even think you’re going to get at some places at the next level,” he said.

“It’s so much fun running the ball like that. We can dominate up front on the offensive line, and then the running backs like Eli can take the holes and hit them. We talked about it before the game, that championships can be won with establishing the running game.”

Sanders’ impact came not just on offense, but defensively as well. At least in theory. The Wolves won the 2020 championship in part because their defense forced four Hamilton turnovers and held the Husky running game in check. Facing Sanders in practice every day prepared Chandler’s defense for such a moment.

“He’s fast, physical, elusive. Going against him just helps us against other backs because he makes us have to actually wrap him up in practice like we do against the best ones we’ll face. So, it’s amazing to be able to practice against him,” said senior defensive end Zion Magalei.

Even with the obvious skill, it was never certain he would be able to produce for Chandler in the capacity he did in the championship game.

In his junior year, he would have likely taken most of the offensive responsibilities at Mountain Pointe. Despite possessing the talent in 2019 to prove himself as one of the top backs in Arizona, he was merely the second option in the backfield for Chandler after transferring. 2020 graduate Dae Dae Hunter, now a freshman at the University of Hawaii, started running for the Wolves that year. Finally, as a senior, Sanders was given the reigns to the offense.

Coach Rick Garretson trusted him with the majority of Chandler’s carries on a rush-heavy team in 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic shortened offseason workouts and made offensive playbooks more difficult to master. With a performance like Sanders had in the final game, it was clear that even though he had to wait his turn, the fit was right with the Wolves.

“He’s in the line of great tailbacks at Chandler, and we’re going to miss him. And he’s just a phenomenal player. He’s a reason we won this year,” Garretson said.

Sanders’ football career is not done with the conclusion of the 2020 AIA season. He verbally committed to play running back at Boise State earlier this year, but his high-caliber play this season has garnered him offers from several bigger-name programs.

He will have to decide what his fate holds as a college football player. But, for at least one night, he was simply able to shed a few happy tears celebrating another state championship and thinking about what his time at Chandler meant to him.

“Where I started from and being accepted by Chandler, my sophomore year they had open arms and brought me in. It’s just been a blessing ever since,” Sanders said. “Being coached by coach Garretson and coach (Eric) Richardson, it’s just been a blessing. I can’t thank them enough.”

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