Sollenberger Classic won’t kick off 2015 football season

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                </div>  The Sollenberger Kick-off Classic, which has become the traditional start to the high school football season in Arizona, has navigated some rough waters during its nine years of existence […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The Sollenberger Kick-off Classic, which has become the traditional start to the high school football season in Arizona, has navigated some rough waters during its nine years of existence as it sought to keep a competitive balance among teams across state lines.

But this year we got an early indication that the event that honors the former historian for the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), Barry Sollenberger, will not be on the schedule to open the 2015 season. Sollenberger, who worked for the AIA as a part-time sports information director, unexpectedly passed away in 2005 at the age of 60, and the Classic was born the next year.

When this year’s reigning Division I state champion Centennial High School agreed to play California power Long Beach Poly on Aug. 21, it was a red flag.  The Arizona state champ is normally given a berth in the Sollenberger, where it meets up with a top Nevada school, generally that state’s big-school title holder.

Centennial won its first state title in six years, finishing the 2014 season with a 12-2 record.  Long Beach Poly was a national top-50 team that closed out the season 11-2.

The Sollenberger isn’t dead.  It’s just looking for a new identity – and perhaps a new home on the back end of the schedule.

It has gone through a metamorphosis over the years.  Back in 2012 the AIA had even discussed breaking with its agreement with the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) to pick from Nevada opponents each year.  The two governing bodies partnered in producing the event and worked together to select the participants after each season.  But things turned testy that year when the AIA chose not to invite the reigning big-school champion, Bishop Gorman High from Vegas.

The event had also undergone a major change the year before when it added a second game that would feature top teams from another division.  That idea, too, had its downside when the pairings began to move away from pitting state champs.

And it was also 2011 when the event was left without a place to play with just two months remaining before the scheduled date.  The event was supposed to be held on the Northern Arizona University campus, but renovations on the Skydome were running behind schedule and the field was not going to be available for use in time.

Last year was another good example of the kind of scrambling that often went on in the off-season, when Gorman was invited again as reigning champ and should have played Arizona’s top dog, Mountain Pointe High School.  But the two teams played each other the previous year and organizers didn’t want a repeat.  So Mountain Pointe was paired with Reed High School, which was the big-school runner-up to Gorman, and Brophy Prep, which finished the previous season 5-7 and made it only as far as the quarterfinals in the state tournament, was invited to provide an opponent for nationally-ranked Gorman.

That created a firestorm of criticism that crossed state lines.

The results were enough to prompt some additional re-evaluation of the format.  Gorman overwhelmed Brophy in the opening game, 44-0, and Mountain Pointe destroyed poor Reed High, 66-13, in the second game, played the next day.  Not the kind of excitement-filled games that organizers wanted – and fans expected.

But it looks like the complexities of dealing across state lines may no longer be an issue.

The event lost a sponsor that was providing the funding to hold the games at Gorman’s elite, college-level stadium the last couple of years, and the Gaels’ head coach Tony Sanchez, who was a driving force in the event’s organization each year, has left the high school game to take over the UNLV program.

So the AIA has the opportunity now to step back and re-evaluate the event.  Initial indications are that organizers will continue with the doubleheader format, but not necessarily involve Nevada teams.  One idea would still pit the Arizona state champ with a top team from out-of-state in one game and let the D-II and D-III champions play each other in the other contest.

In an article in The Arizona Republic, Scott Bordow suggested keeping it all in the family, an idea that the AIA is apparently considering.  It would have the champions from D-I and D-II playing each other and the D-III and D-IV winners competing.

Each of these scenarios would have the teams meet immediately after the title games are over.  That, however, has some downside that will create some serious discussion between the AIA and the high school coaches.  At the top of the list of negatives would be the fact that extending the football season would mean the coaches of the winter sports programs would have to wait even longer before the football players are free to begin practicing with their teams.

There’s also the pride issue.  Coaches who win a state title want to end the season on that successful note and may not be willing to risk going out on a loss.  And the teams that will be scheduled to play an opponent from a division lower than theirs might see it as an unwelcome opportunity to be embarrassed by a team they would be expected to beat.

So it looks like the Sollenberger Classic will likely continue.  But so will the kind of controversy that has dogged it for almost a decade.

Apparently, it’s not time yet for Barry Sollenberger to rest in peace.