Sollenberger Classic may omit Nevada schools in future

The AIA made a major change in the format for the Sollenberger Classic by adding a second game last year.  But there may be an even bigger change on the horizon for the traditional kick-off to the Arizona prep football season.

This may well be the last year that a Nevada state champion is invited to participate.

Turmoil erupted this year because the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which created the event to start the high school football season each year, did not invite the reigning Nevada big-school champion, Bishop Gorman High, to play Arizona’s title holder.

The decision by the AIA has been called into question because it appeared to be politically movitivated.  Bishop Gorman is feuding with the AIA’s counterpart in Nevada, the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA), and the perceived slight by the Arizona association is seen by some, including the school itself, to be tied to the squabble.  (See 5/05/12 phxfan article)

And the Nevada media keeps the thorny issue percolating, with new articles hitting the street just this past week after the AIA’s associate executive director, Chuck Schmidt, appeared at a meeting of the NIAA’s Board of Control.

Schmidt reportedly reiterated his earlier position that Bishop Gorman was passed over for another Nevada school, based on providing a competitive game and not on politics.

Palo Verde High School got the nod this year to play the Arizona big-school reigning state champion, Desert Vista High School in Phoenix.  The Las Vegas school was the last Nevada team to beat Bishop Gorman, which has lost just three games in the last three years, all to out-of-state football powers.  Palo Verde beat the Gaels in 2008, when it finished as the state runner-up.

Gorman is ranked No. 11 in the country by MaxPreps this year.  But Palo Verde is no slouch.  The Panthers have a 59-6 record over the past five years.

So that brings into question one of Schmidt’s points in defense of his argument for not inviting Gorman.  “We wanted to ensure that the Arizona team that was being invited had the opportunity to compete on the field,” Schmidt was quoted as telling the NIAA.

“Do you want to show up and play a game where there is really no chance of winning?” he asked.

However, Chandler’s perennial powerhouse, Hamilton High School, beat Bishop Gorman in the 2010 Sollenberger Classic, 24-17.  But the Gaels came back last year and rolled over Scottsdale’s Chaparral High, 42-22.

Schmidt also contends that last year’s state Division I champion, Desert Vista, might not have the talent back again to take on a team like Gorman, since the Thunder lost a large part of last year’s squad to graduation.

The Classic was named after Barry Sollenberger, a long-time historian of Arizona high school football stats and stories.  It began in 2006 as a contest between in-state teams, but Bishop Gorman was invited the next year as it became an annual showdown between the best in the Silver State against the best in the Grand Canyon State.

The Gaels have represented Nevada four times, and were expecting to be back for their fifth – and third straight – for the Aug. 18 kick-off.

Instead, AIA officials announced in the spring that Palo Verde had been invited instead, with Division IV champion Blue Ridge High taking on Nevada’s Moapa Valley High School in the under-card game, which was added last year.

The decision to pass over Bishop Gorman set off a firestorm across the border.  And here at home, Desert Vista’s coach admitted he would also have welcomed the opportunity to play Bishop Gorman.

Schmidt now says that the organizers have offered to include a third game that would feature Bishop Gorman, but the Gaels turned the late offer down.

“In the beginning, this was not about state champions,” Schmidt was quoted further in an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  “We were looking at games that would promote the opportunity to develop the relationship between Nevada and Arizona.”

Schmidt expressed his disappointment in the controversy that has ensued this year and noted that the event’s organizers have discussed the possibility of not inviting Nevada teams in the future.  There is no formal process or guidelines that stipulate which team, or even which state, is invited.

“Our focus has been to create a lasting memory for the students who participate and, more importantly, to honor one of our friends (Sollenberger),” Schmidt told the Las Vegas Sun.

Evidently, losing is not the kind of lasting memory he has in mind for the Arizona kids.