AZ bragging rights at stake at Sollenberger Kickoff Classic

Tomorrow, two of Arizona’s best high school football teams will try to preserve the state’s perfect record in the 6th annual Sollenberger Kickoff Classic.

For the past four years, the big-school championship teams from Nevada have met up with same-level championship teams from Arizona in the event, which traditionally kicks off a new season.  Each year, an Arizona team has won the game.

(*Update: Arizona’s reign ended this year.  Despite a three-touchdown performance by senior receiver Josh Weeks, Show Low dropped the night’s opener, 28-26.  And it got uglier in the main event, as Gorman’s Shaquille Powell ran roughshod over Chaparral, picking up 303 yards rushing to lead the Nevada visitors to a 42-22 rout of the Firebirds.)

In 2006, a couple of in-state teams were invited to the inaugural event, and Hamilton High School beat Mesa’s Red Mountain High School.  But the next year, Bishop Gorman High School was invited to represent Nevada, losing to Brophy Prep from Phoenix.  Ever since then, the game has been played between schools from Nevada and Arizona.

Last year, Bishop Gorman returned as the Nevada 5A state champion, but lost this time to Hamilton, 24-17, in a game played in the Walkup Skydome on the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff.  It was Hamilton’s 26th straight win.

Gorman, from Las Vegas, is back this year to see if three’s a charm.  The Gaels will take on nationally-ranked Chaparral High School from Scottsdale, the two-time defending state champion in 5A-II.

And, for the first time, a second game has been added to the event, which will be played for only the second time at University of Phoenix Stadium.  Show Low High School, the defending 3A champion, will take on Moapa Valley High, the runner-up in 3A last year.

OK, we know about Chaparral and Show Low.

The Firebirds will enter the 7:30 pm main event as the No. 25 team in the country, according to MaxPreps.com, and are coming off an undefeated (14-0) season in 2010.  The Show Low Cougers beat Blue Ridge High School, 20-17, to win its state crown, finishing the season 12-1, with the only loss coming in a mid-season match-up with Blue Ridge.

But who are these other guys?  And what exactly is a Moapa?

Moapa Valley will take on Show Low on the undercard game at 3 pm, becoming the first Nevada team to be invited that wasn’t a state champion.  It lost to Truckee High in the 2010 title game, but when Truckee turned down the invitation to play in the Classic, the Pirates jumped at the chance to take their place.

The school just happened to be in the right place at the right time, as the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which puts on the event, decided a second game would give the state a chance to showcase the high-scoring Show Low, which MaxPreps has ranked as the No. 413 team in the country.

By comparison, Moapa Valley went 7-5 last year and was the 5,437th team on the list.

The Pirates have a senior quarterback in Dakota Watters and scored a lot of points last year via the pass.  But this season, they are expected to run the ball a lot more behind junior running back, Sean McConnell.

But the main event has been getting all the hype because it pits two Top 10 national teams.  MaxPreps ranks Bishop Gorman at No. 9 nationally and Rivals.com has them even higher, at No. 7.  The school has a deserved reputation as one of the country’s best high school teams, year-in and year-out.

Between the two teams, there will be a good array of Division I prospects on the field tomorrow.

The Gaels have won three of the last four 5A titles in Nevada, winning its last two by a combined score of 102-21, and are expected to add another in the coming season.  They’ve only lost two games over those two years and both were to out-of-state teams that were nationally-ranked at the time.  Hamilton was one, powerhouse De La Salle of northern California was the other.

When they get done with the showdown with Chaparral, the Gaels will take on the No. 2 high school team in the country, Armwood High from Florida.

Two years ago, Gorman had one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country, scoring just shy of 800 points on the season.  Last year, they put 692 points on the board.  If you divide that by the 15 games on the schedule, that’s just over 46 points a game.

Chaparral will have to find a way to slow down that scoring machine this time around, as the Gaels will come at them with junior  quarterback Anu Solomon, who already has 4,445 career passing yards and 60 touchdowns to his credit.

Shaquille Powell, a bruising 205-pound running back, has accumulated 2,782 yards and 46 TDs in just two years.  Hamilton can tell you all about Powell, who ran for 196 yards against the Huskies when the teams met last year.

And Solomon and Powell will be operating behind an offensive line that features three seniors – Nick Strehlow, Ronnie Stanley, and Ron Scoggins – who have started every game since their sophomore seasons and average 290 pounds.

However, Chaparral has its own stable of D-I recruits.  High on that list is senior quarterback Conner Brewer and receiver Davonte Neal, arguably the best scoring combination in the state this year.

Neal, the Arizona Player of the Year last season, is ranked as the No. 25 senior in the 2012 class.  He also plays a significant role on defense as a cornerback, and in his spare time returns kick-offs.

Brewer, who is heading to the Lone Star state to play for the Longhorns, was recently touted as the nation’s No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2012 class by respected recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.  Neal got a top ranking from Lemming as the No. 1 wingback.

“We don’t expect to stop him,” said Gorman head coach Tony Sanchez when asked about Neal.  “We have to slow him down, contain him, keep him in front of us.”

While Gorman’s offensive line has got to be one of the biggest in the country, the Firebirds also have a little heft as well, averaging 270 pounds, according to head coach Charlie Ragle.

This game is so big that the Fox Sports Network will be televising it nationally.  The start time of the Gorman-Chaparral game was even moved from 7:00 to 7:30 to accommodate the television coverage.

Chaparral has to be considered the underdog – a role it’s not accustomed to – but Ragle is hoping he will get a little edge over the visitors, thanks to the rigors of the trip, three days sleeping in hotels, and a partisan crowd.

But this time the heat won’t be a factor for an out-of-state visitor, as it generally is out here in the desert.  Gorman has been preparing for this one in the triple-digit heat of Las Vegas.

They will be ready – and looking for revenge for 2008 and 2010.