Gunning for a repeat: Sophomore Fagrell leads Higley into second straight 5A championship game

November 29, 2023 by Ben Stapley, AZPreps365

Higley’s sophomore quarterback Gunner Fagrell has unexpectedly led the Knights to their second consecutive 5A championship game. Photo by Lawrence Cordova.
Sometimes the best stories involve a good plot twist.
Higley’s return to the 5A State Championship game includes a new character surprisingly taking the lead role: Sophomore quarterback Gunner Fagrell.
Thanks to his elevated performance over the last five games, the Knights (11-2) get a shot to defend their 2022 title Friday night at Mountain America Stadium against a familiar opponent in Desert Edge (11-2).
Kickoff is at 8pm.
“It’s been a bit of a carousel with the quarterback position since last year but it’s worked out m thus far,” Higley coach Eddy Zubey said last weekend after Fagrell led the Knights to a 78-14 shellacking of Apollo in the semifinal round.
“Gunner’s really come a long way.”
At the beginning of last season, Fagrell was on the freshman team where he was rotating practice reps and playing time at quarterback.
A lot can happen in one year.
Uncertainty Under Center 
After winning last season’s 5A state championship, Higley lost its outstanding quarterback in then junior Jamar Malone, who left to play at IMG Academy in Florida. But the Knights gained another top-flight QB prospect when Luke Haugo transferred in from North High. The class of 2025 was already a three star prospect, but would have to sit out the first five games of the season.
Zubey had to find a suitable quarterback to start the first half of the season, which is when Fagrell came into the picture.
“He really made big strides over the off-season and showed maturity,” Zubey said of Fagrell, who led the Knights to a 4-1 start. “He knows how to take care of the football.”
Higley’s only loss in that span was a double overtime heartbreaker to Desert Edge, 38-32.
But the plan all along was Luke Haugo taking over mid season, and junior performed as advertised over his first two starts. In wins over ALA Gilbert North and Notre Dame Prep, Haugo threw for 10 touchdowns with 529 combined yards.
The next week, just a few hours before a big matchup with Horizon, Haugo told Zubey he was unable to go due to a nagging injury.
Meanwhile, Fagrell had been taking reps as a receiver during the week, but Higley’s season was quickly put back on the shoulders of the 6-1, 165 pound sophomore.
“Of course it was a surprise that night, but those first five games had really given me confidence, so I was ready to answer the call,” Fagrell said of his unexpected sixth start of the year.
Doubt on the Horizon?
Unfortunately for Fagrell and the Knights, the Horizon game turned into its worst of the year, as Higley fell 28-6 to the Huskies. Gone with that loss were any hopes of qualifying for the Open Division playoffs.
"That was a tough game," Fagrell admits. 
"I didn't have the normal reps that week so the gameplan was a little off, but we don't make excuses. Horizon beat us."
There was no time for remorse, as Higley’s next game was a trip to North Scottsdale for a matchup with undefeated Desert Mountain.
Taming the Wolves
What happened at Desert Mountain shocked nearly everyone. Fagrell and the Knights ran the Wolves out of their own stadium, as they put on an offensive clinic in a 58-21 route. It was a landmark performance for Fagrell and a win that reinforced Higley as a 5A contender again.
“That was a great win for us,” Fagrell said of Desert Mountain game.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to win, but Coach Zubey put us in a great position and my teammates were awesome.”
The key in that game was Fagrell’s running ability, which took Desert Mountain by surprise. The Wolves were fixated on stopping Higley’s leading rusher Dax Hall.
“They weren’t expecting Gunner to pull the ball back in and keep it himself,” Zubey said of the Desert Mountain game.
“He was really effective running and it threw them off balance. It was one of those game where everything went right.”
Higley running back Dax Hall sheds a Notre Dame Prep defender earlier this season. The senior has rushed for 1,992 yards this season. Photo by Steve Paynter
Fagrell was spectacular, throwing for nearly 250 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 156 on the ground against a team that had yielded just under 13 points a game through seven weeks.
Fagrell has never looked back, performing at a top level ever since. The sophomore has thrown for over 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns over the last five games. That stretch includes three playoff opponents, with 334 yards in last week’s destruction of Apollo in a semifinal contest.
Higley’s offense should prove more difficult for Desert Edge this time around.
With Hall leading the ground attack and closing in on 2,000 yards, and Fagrell’s dual threat capabilities throwing and running, Higley’s offense has become wide open and a nightmare to defend.
The Knights have three players with at least 40 receptions in Jaden Taylor (71), Kaden Millner (48), and Hall with 44 catches out of the backfield.
Transfers Ezy Brown (North) and Taveon Sueing (Red Mountain) have combined for 41 receptions since week six. With Fagrell’s progression and a bolstered receiving corps, options are plentiful for Higley.
“I’ve known Gunner for a while now, and it’s been awesome to see his confidence grow over the season Hall said of Fagrell.
“Once Luke went down, Gunner really started to heat up.”
Fagrell has thrown for 2,721 yards in his 11 starts with 31 touchdowns.
Does Higley have the Edge?
Desert Edge captains last week before before facing Horizon. From left to right: Kezion Dia-Johnson (1), Jaylen Dawson (34), Aundre Gibson (21) and Deshawn Warner (15). Photo by Jack Beasley
It will still require a stellar performance from Higley to get over on Desert Edge, as the Scorpions have plenty of weapons stockpiled. Defensive end DeShawn Warner can change a game on any given play. In the first go-around with Higley, Warner had a pick six, and is capable dropping back in the secondary. He’s also tallied 16 sacks on the year.
Desert Edge is also improved since the first half of the season. Running back Markhi McKinnon, who transferred from Goldwater, has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in his eight games. Receiver Jaquan Anderson came over from Liberty, providing quarterback Hezekiah Millender with another reliable weapon.
Desert Edge may have an advantage by way of its hard fought, 18-15 win over Horizon in its semifinal contest. The Scorpions are more freshly battle tested, whereas Higley may have won too easily.
However, the postseason has shown the difficulty in beating the same opponent twice. This might prove advantageous for Higley.
“Coming through with such a big win in the Horizon game should be helpful for us, because I feel like we’re playing at the top of our peak right now," Desert Edge cornerback Aundre Gibson said Wednesday.
“With (Higley), I just want to do what we did before, by playing with compassion and playing with fight.”
Ben Stapley is a staff reporter for AZPreps365. Follow him on 'X' @AZPreps365Ben. For human interest story ideas, contact him at