Now you see it. Now you don’t.
The Sollenberger Football Kick-off Classic has disappeared once again. And the thought that it may eventually fade away permanently is becoming an increasing concern.
For more than a decade, the event has marked the beginning of the high school football season in Arizona. But as the start of the football schedule kept getting moved up, it has become increasingly difficult to fit the Sollenberger Classic, which often featured a double header, in ahead of the rest of the schedule.
Games now begin in mid-August and it just isn’t practical to try to squeeze in a game ahead of that. And to hold the event on the opening weekend of Aug. 16-18 would mean competing with 76 other high school teams playing their first games.
But finding a suitable date is just one of the considerations that guarantee its continuation each year. There are other, more complicated, issues that have threatened its existence. This year’s cancellation is the second time in the last four years. The last time it was canceled was 2015.
This time, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the state governing body that runs the event, issued a statement just days ago blaming an inability to coordinate schedules with schools in Nevada and New Mexico, where Arizona schools would find the opposing teams to play in the Classic. The top teams in those states had other commitments, says the AIA.
In the event’s formative years more than a decade ago, the teams invited to play were selected exclusively from Nevada. The AIA got together each year with the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association to pick the teams to compete and decide whether the event would be held in Arizona or Nevada.
The format has always been to pit the top two teams, hopefully both state champions, against each other. In the very first years after the event was established in 2006 to honor Barry Sollenberger, the AIA’s historian who unexpectedly passed away the year before at age 60, it was just in-state teams involved.
Once the decision was made to cross the border for its competition, the event has been plagued with problems. Organizers have struggled with difficulties in finding suitable venues, hard feelings between state associations, a loss of sponsors, and other issues as they tried to keep a competitive balance that would keep the games interesting for the fans.
And this year’s excuse seems somewhat implausible. It’s hard to understand how it took the organizers this long to figure out they couldn’t mesh schedules. That’s something that’s determined much earlier in the process, not four weeks before when the game is normally scheduled to be played. So there is likely more to it than that.
When the event returned in 2016, it featured a double header that showcased four of the top teams from within Arizona. Last year, it was pared down to two teams with a single game – similar to the year it first started, when Red Mountain High School and Chandler High were selected to kick off the inaugural event.
The venue has also changed considerably in recent years. In the earlier years, the event had been showcased at high-profile facilities like Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium – which hosted the inaugural game – and University of Phoenix Stadium where the Arizona Cardinals play. When the games were played in Nevada, they were hosted by the University of Nevada or held at Fertitta Field, an impressive state-of-the-art stadium on the campus of Bishop Gorman High School, which fielded one of the top teams in the nation.
For the past two years, it was moved to Coconino High School in Flagstaff. Adequate, but a step removed from the event’s glory days.
And, without the ‘celebrity’ factor of being able to compete against another state’s top talent, it’s just another game between in-state teams who may have already met once before in the previous season, or in the state playoffs.
However, the AIA has expressed its intent to bring the Sollenberger back next year, with Arizona schools once again matching up against top programs from out-of-state. The preferred venue would be somewhere in northern Arizona.
It’s been a rough road at times for the Sollenberger, but organizers have persevered through it all. The original intent, to hold an annual event that would celebrate the memory of a man who meant a lot to high school sports in this state, has remained foremost in the minds of those working to keep it alive.
But the lustre is beginning to fade, and perhaps also the enthusiasm.
We’ll just have to wait and see what 2019 brings. Hopefully, not another cancellation.