Sollenberger Classic takes risky turn away from tradition

There’s always a lot of anticipation before the kick-off of tomorrow night’s Barry Sollenberger Classic, the game between Nevada and Arizona state champions that has become the traditional start of the high school football season in Arizona.

This year, however, the event’s organizers were probably more interested in just getting this one behind them.

The Classic, which is put on by the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), has been mired in controversy since last April, when the AIA huddled with the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) and decided to include two Nevada teams that were not the reigning state champions.

Palo Verde High School in Summerlin Las Vegas will play the main event, the game between the big-school teams, against Phoenix’s Desert Vista High School.  The early game at University of Phoenix Stadium will pit Nevada’s Moapa Valley High against Blue Ridge High from Lakeside.

(*Update: Arizona gets bragging rights for 2012 as Desert Vista overcame a 10-7 Palo Verde lead at the half to rebound to a 20-10 victory, while Blue Ridge beat Moapa Valley, 23-14, behind Ben Watson’s 171 all-purpose yards.)

Desert Vista is the defending Division I state champion and Blue Ridge owns the state title in Division IV.  But neither Nevada team brought home a title last season.  Moapa Valley was the runner-up in the 3A division, and Palo Verde wasn’t even the big-school runner-up; the Panthers’ season ended with a loss in the regional championship game.

In the months following Gorman’s perceived snub, fuel was thrown on the fire by the Nevada media.  When they covered an NIAA meeting that was attended by AIA’s Associate Executive Director Chuck Schmidt, he was quoted by several media outlets as he defended the choice to invite teams that were not state champions this year.

“We wanted to ensure the Arizona team invited had the chance to compete on the field,” Schmidt was quoted as saying.  “Do you want to show up and play a game where there really is no chance of winning?”

The reference was assumed to be pointed at the three-time Nevada state big-school champion, Bishop Gorman High School from Las Vegas.  The nationally-ranked Gaels, which have lost just three games in three years, were expected to return to the Sollenberger again this year as the defending Nevada champion.  The opposing coaches had reportedly even begun discussing exchanging game film.

When it was announced that Palo Verde would be coming instead, it made it appear that Desert Vista was not expected to be able to compete with Gorman.  And that didn’t set well with the Thunder – or their head coach, Dan Hinds.

Last year, Gorman beat Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School, undefeated the year before and ranked as the No. 25 prep team in the country, in a 42-22 rout.  But it was their first win in three trips to the Sollenberger.  Brophy Prep beat them in 2007 and Hamilton High took care of business in 2010, so the issue about competitiveness doesn’t seem to wash.

And Hinds says his team was ready to face Gorman, and believes they could have beaten the Nevada powerhouse.

But regardless of the reasoning behind this year’s match-ups, the hype for year’s game has been somewhat watered-down without the big-name recognition that Bishop Gorman brings.

However, if you look at the prospects for both games tomorrow, there is good reason to expect a couple of good contests.  Moapa Valley has already proven itself worthy of being here by beating Show Low High School, 28-26, in last year’s undercard game.

And, while Palo Verde doesn’t bring the gaudy stats and national recognition of Bishop Gorman, the school can definitely play with the big boys.  They’re the last team to have beaten the Gaels and have a 59-6 record that goes back to 2007.  Their only losses the last two seasons were both to Bishop Gorman in playoff games.

The Panthers don’t have the kind of exciting offensive game that Gorman features, but they get the job done.  They rushed for more than 3,000 yards last season.  The offense, which includes a number of D-I prospects, runs a double-wing attack, but is adding parts of a spread formation this season – which they combine with a defense that is both physical and fast.

By the end of the day tomorrow, Arizona fans may find they’ve forgotten about Bishop Gorman.