For nine years, the Sollenberger Kick-Off Classic became the traditional start to the high school football season in Arizona, pitting the top teams in this state with those outside our borders.
Last year the event that honors the former historian for the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), Barry Sollenberger, was not on the 2015 schedule.
It returns this season, but is back to its original format that kept the competition between elite in-state teams. The only difference, there will be a double-header on Aug. 20 instead of a single game, as was the case when the event had its debut back in 2006.
Last year’s D-I state champion Centennial High School will take on D-III champ Desert Edge High in the 6 p.m. headliner game. Brophy Prep will square off against Pinnacle High in the 1 p.m. opener.
Last year’s cancellation came as a disappointment to high school football fans across the state. But it wasn’t a complete surprise. It has been a rocky road for the Sollenberger the past few years as the event struggled with venue changes, hard feelings between state associations, and other issues as organizers sought to keep a competitive balance among teams across state lines.
In 2011, the event was left without a place to play just two months before kick-off when the field at the Northern Arizona University Skydome was undergoing renovation and wouldn’t be available in time for the game.
That was also the year the Sollenberger expanded to include a second game, this one between top teams from another division.
In 2012, the AIA had even discussed breaking its agreement with the Nevada Interscholastic Association to pick from Nevada opponents each year. The two governing bodies had been partners in producing the event for several years, working together to select each year’s participants. But things turned testy that year when the AIA chose not to invite the reigning Nevada big-school champion, Bishop Gorman High.
In 2014, Bishop Gorman was again reigning champion and was invited back – but with disastrous results. Since Gorman had played Arizona’s top D-I team, Mountain Pointe High School, the year before, organizers scheduled the Gaels against Brophy, which finished the previous season 5-7. Mountain Pointe played Reed High School, which was the runner-up to Gorman for the state title.
The result was a pair of contests that were over almost before they began. Gorman beat Brophy, 44-0, and Mountain Pointe routed Reed, 66-13.
That was a blow to the showcase’s continued popularity. But the final straw came when the event lost a sponsor that had been providing the funding to hold some of the games at Gorman’s elite, college-level stadium that had been sharing hosting responsibilities with Arizona venues.
And then Gorman’s head coach, Tony Sanchez, left the school to take over the UNLV program. Sanchez had been a driving force in the event’s planning each year.
So organizers took a year off to step back and re-evaluate things. They’ve gone back to the original premise of playing top teams in the state against one another, but stayed with the double-header format.
But even the re-set has experienced some of the missteps that were all too frequent in the past. The ‘marquee’ game has evolved from a game originally scheduled between Hamilton High School and Mountain Pointe.
It’s fair to say the event has lost some of its lustre by not bringing in nationally-ranked teams like Gorman, and the venue has downsized from previous years when the teams played at college stadiums like those at NAU and Arizona State, and even several years at University of Phoenix Stadium. This year’s games will be back in Flagstaff, but at Coconino High School.
And the event has now become the TIKATAP Sollenberger Classic, presented by the U.S. Army.
But venues and sponsors aside, the important thing to remember is the original intent for establishing the Barry Sollenberger Classic. It was meant to be an ongoing tribute for a man who devoted his career to documenting the achievements of Arizona’s high school athletes.
Thanks to the determined efforts of many people over the past year, that mission can now move forward.