Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 12:46 p.m.
Palo Verde and Moapa Valley highs will open the high school football season Aug. 18 at the Sollenberger Classic in Arizona, breaking with a tradition of having the defending large-school state champion represent Nevada in the annual border war kickoff to the season.
Three-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman’s exclusion from the event marks the first time in five years that the Nevada champion hasn't been invited to face the Arizona large-school champion — a fact not sitting well with Gorman officials and supporters. Gorman defeated Scottsdale's Chaparral High in last year's game.
Arizona's Desert Vista and Blue Ridge high schools both won state titles last year and were picked for the event. While Moapa Valley lost to Truckee in the 3A classification state finals, Sollenberger officials say traveling from Northern Nevada to Arizona is too expensive, meaning Moapa Valley would again be next in line.
Brian Bolitho, one of the event’s organizers from the Arizona Interscholastic Association, said the decision to exclude Gorman was made by the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (the governing body of high school sports in Nevada).
“If you want to know why Gorman isn’t involved, that’s a NIAA question,” Bolitho said. “We select two teams (from Arizona) and they select two teams.”
The NIAA’s Board of Control met in March to discuss what several feel is an uneven playing field between private school Gorman and the public schools it competes against. A committee is exploring ways to level the playing field and one suggestion is to limit Gorman’s NIAA membership to only regular season games. A follow-up meeting will likely occur early next month.
Several people affiliated with Gorman feel their exclusion from the Sollenberger game is a direct result of the conflict with the NIAA. That’s completely false, says Donnie Nelson, the NIAA’s assistant director.
“With what is going on with the Board of Control and the status of Bishop Gorman, in my opinion, has nothing to do with Gorman not being asked to play in the game,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the AIA requested a list of five schools they felt would fit participating in the game. While he wouldn’t name the five schools recommended, Bolitho said Gorman wasn’t included.
“The decision to send a team(s) from Nevada other than our defending state champion(s) was a collaborative philosophical change in participants between the AIA & NIAA,” NIAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine said in a statement. “Palo Verde High School and Moapa Valley High School from Nevada are a better fit for 2012-2013.”
At Gorman, officials were surprised to learn they weren’t invited and wondered why the criteria had changed.
“I’m shocked and disappointed that we aren’t participating in the game, and a little curious with how the decision was made,” Gorman coach Tony Sanchez said.
Desert Vista, which is expected to be a top-20 national team, reportedly would have preferred to play Gorman in a matchup that would have drawn national interest.
“Our first choice would be Bishop Gorman,” Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds told the Arizona Republic, which first reported the story. “They’ve come down the last couple of years. I thought they would be the team. We were looking forward to it. We’ll play anyone who comes down. But we would like to play the best team from there.”
Palo Verde is also one of the Las Vegas Valley’s most accomplished programs. The Panthers have just four defeats in the three years — three against Gorman in the playoffs — and are widely considered the area’s best team after Gorman. Palo Verde is the last local team to defeat Gorman, has a 59-6 record since the 2007 season and is expected to again make a deep playoff run.
Last August, the event expanded to two games with 3A classification Moapa Valley from Overton beating Show Low of east central Arizona. The pageantry surrounding the event and getting to play in a top-notch facility — the game last summer was at the Arizona Cardinals’ home field — was an experience of a lifetime for the Moapa Valley players.
“We are excited to go back and represent Nevada again,” Moapa Valley coach Brent Lewis said. “It’s kind of like a mini-state championship for us. Obviously, we are disappointed we didn’t finish the deal (of winning state) last year.”
Moapa Valley has been selected for the game the past two years despite losing to Truckee High of Northern Nevada in the 3A state title game. Last year, several Truckee fans took to the Sun’s message board to voice their disappointment for not being included despite winning title.
Reno’s McQueen High was the last Northern Nevada team to play in the game, hosting Centennial High of Peoria at UNR in 2009. However, having an Arizona school travel to Reno, or sending a Reno team to Arizona, isn’t a possibility.
“It’s hard to bring a team from Reno. There is a lot more expense involved there,” Bolitho said.