NEW CHAPEL HILL — After last season’s loss to Henderson in the state championship game, Chapel Hill expected a return to Cowboys Stadium the next year.
The Bulldogs weren’t alone. Most prognosticators throughout the state felt the same way, as Chapel Hill began the year ranked No. 1 in Class 3A.
One of the biggest reasons was the return of quarterback Avery Saenz, who burst onto the scene as a junior, passing for more than 2,800 yards and 32 touchdowns in leading the Bulldogs to the state final.
Through the first two games of the season, Saenz appeared well on his way to an all-state campaign. In wins over Palestine Westwood and Whitehouse, he completed 35 of 46 attempts for 716 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“It started off as a blast; the stats speak for themselves,” Saenz said. “The team was rolling.”
Up next was a showdown with the three-time defending state champion Carthage Bulldogs on the road.
Early in the second quarter, Saenz scrambled for a 6-yard gain, but ended up suffering a broken right ankle, an injury that kept him out the next six games.
“When I went down, we had to re-evaluate ourselves as a team,” Saenz said. “People had to step up at places.”
For Saenz, he had some important decisions to make and right away.
“I could do surgery and it would be a certain length,” he said. “I could do no surgery with a cast, or I could do neither one, but start super slow with the rehab. I prayed about it and thought about it.”
Saenz opted not to undergo surgery, meaning a potentially slow rehabilitation process.
“I couldn’t move for the first two weeks, but after that they let me start a little mobility like toes, then side-to-side, up-and-down,” he said. “Then I could start walking and just gradually progressed for about six weeks or so until I actually got to go out there at 100 percent.”
He was able to return in time for the regular-season finale at Athens, tossing a pair of touchdowns in his first game back.
Since returning, Saenz has thrown for 841 yards and eight touchdowns, but has thrown four interceptions in his last two games.
“I’ll take responsibility for the interceptions and the fumbles,” he said. “I’m going to step up and be a man. At times, there were things I should have done where probably experience would’ve helped since I missed some games during the year.”
Perhaps Saenz’s defining moment came last week, when he led a two-minute scoring drive that sent Chapel Hill past West Columbia and into today’s state championship game.
“He is just an unbelievable competitor,” Chapel Hill head coach Thomas Sitton said. “He’s going to fight for everything that he gets. He’s an extremely hard worker and great leader. It just felt good knowing that we made enough plays to give him another opportunity to play in the state championship game.”
Said Bulldogs offensive coordinator Chris Taber: “It’s been a true pleasure. He’s one of those kids who’s going to take everything you say and try to apply it to his game. He’s very, very smart. It helps having a kid on the field that understands the offense as well as I do.”
Saenz also the carries the weight of being the team’s unquestioned leader.
“He’s definitely a leader,” senior receiver Nelson Onwuzu said. “He’s been through a lot of adversity. Injuries ruined his sophomore season and part of this year. He’s come back and practiced hard like it’s his last because it could be.”
Even though he’s already earned a special place in Chapel Hill history, Saenz is one game away from cementing his legacy as a state champion.
“We want it, and if you really want something, you’ll do whatever it takes to get it,” Saenz said. “God gave us another chance and God doesn’t give you greatness. He gives you the opportunity to be great.”