Hamilton kicks off HS football in the Sollenberger Classic

High school football will kick off in a big way this weekend, as Arizona steps onto the national stage.

Hamilton High School in Chandler, which has won the 5A-I state championship the past two years, takes on one of Nevada’s best in the fifth annual Sollenberger Classic in Flagstaff.  Visiting Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) went undefeated last season and was the No. 1 team in the state.

“Whover loses this game, your national exposure is done.”  That’s what Hamilton head coach Steve Belles said earlier this summer in an interview for The Arizona Republic.  The Huskies, who are ranked No. 16 nationally going into the season,  see this game as critical to maintaining that national profile.

The game, which honors the late AIA historian, Barry Sollenberger, will be played Saturday at the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University.  Kick-off is set for 7:10 p.m.

A little game history:

Last year’s game was played at the University of Nevada, when Centennial High School in Peoria traveled to Reno to beat the 4A defending state champ, Reno McQueen, 51-20.

Hamilton and Bishop Gorman have both played in the Classic before.

The Huskies played in the first Sollenberger Classic match-up in 2006, beating Red Mountain High School (Mesa), 21-7.  Bishop Gorman’s debut was in 2007 when they managed just six points against Brophy Prep in a 16-6 loss.

But don’t expect that kind of anemic offensive performance from the Gaels again this year.

The team match-ups:

Bishop Gorman went 13-0 last year, averaging 53 points a game.  They put more than 50 points on the board in 10 different games, six of those scoring more than 60 points.

And they used a freshman quarterback to do it.  Jarrett Solomon is a throwing machine, finishing 2009 with a .589 passing percentage.  He threw for 2,108 yards and 20 TDs.

So it’s a good thing for Hamilton that Malcolm Holland has returned to the team to help in the defensive backfield.  Holland played his freshman and sophomore years at Hamilton (in the starting line-up as a sophomore), but left to play at rival Chandler High School last year, where he had four interceptions and 49 tackles.

For his senior year with the Huskies, he will join a couple of returning veterans to try to contain Solomon’s passing attack:  Cedric Parker, a senior defensive back, and Tyler Tutt, a senior linebacker.

But Hamilton will have to do more than contain Bishop Gorman, they’ll need to put up some serious points to keep pace with a prolific Gael offense. And they will have to accomplish that without an experienced quarterback and the two stud running backs they graduated last year, Zach Bauman and Michael Allen.

Senior Kyren Poe will step in under center to try to lead the Huskies to a three-peat of the state title, and its sixth title in eight years.  Poe did see some game time last year, primarily interjected into the offense on third downs because of his passing ability, but he also started the Ironwood game and alternated taking snaps against Salpointe Catholic.  So he’s not green, just not thoroughly seasoned.

But, despite Poe’s prowess with the pass, the Huskies are likely to spend a lot of time running the ball and using the option attack against the Gaels.

That’s because they have arguably the best offensive line in the state, and one of the best in the country.  Their running backs will be finding holes aplenty, thanks to a line made up of major college prospects that will average about 260 pounds, three returning starters from the 14-0 season and all five with varsity experience.

Returning tackles Tyler Johnstone and Christian Westerman Jr. will join with returning center Nick Cosenza to anchor that enormous offensive line, while 6’4″, 270 lb. John Archuleta provides something new as a transfer from Nevada.

Westerman (6’5″, 295 lb.) will be headed for Texas next year, after picking the Longhorns from among two dozen different offers he had, and Johnstone (6’5″, 255 lb.) has committed to play next year at Oregon.

One of the Gaels’ strengths is also the offensive line, which is anchored by 6’6″, 275 senior, Ronnie Stanley.

So there will be a lot of smash-mouth football in the trenches Saturday night.  And, likely, a lot of points put on the board.

Sounds like a game worth traveling up the hill to Flag.