By Ray Brewer
This will be a chance for Las Vegas area high school football teams to make a statement.
During a three-week stretch at the end of August and into early September, nine area programs will open the season against out-of-state competition in games coaches say carry much significance.
In addition to getting the players ready for the challenges of league play, they are more than aware of the obvious: The local brand of football is gaining respect nationally each year, meaning teams will be playing for more than the school name on the front of their jersey. They’ll also be representing the area.
“Whether we win or lose, we want to be competitive for the state of Nevada,” said Coronado coach Brad Talich, whose Cougars will play against Idaho’s Highlands High in the Rocky Mountain Rumble on Aug. 31 at Idaho State. “(Nevada) is still way behind a lot of other states. My deal is we want to go up there and represent. That will be our mentality.”
Most programs already are gearing up for the season with daily workouts. With a few minor exceptions, the schedule has been finalized.
Bishop Gorman and Liberty each play Arizona powers in the Sollenberger Classic to open the season — Gorman on Aug. 23 against state runner-up Mountain Pointe, and Liberty the following night against Salpointe Catholic of Tucson. Also on Aug. 23, Faith Lutheran will host Parker Lutheran of the Denver area.
Last year, when Faith Lutheran traveled to Colorado and beat Parker Lutheran in the season opener, players from others schools took to social media to offer congratulations. When Palo Verde played at the Sollenberger Classic in Arizona, players from rival Gorman followed the game online and sent messages of encouragement on Twitter to the Palo Verde players.
The logic behind having Nevada teams perform well is simple. Media from recruiting websites such as rivals.com or maxpreps.com send reporters to cover most national games, meaning a good showing could result in more publicity for local players and programs. That directly leads to more colleges recruiting the area.
“Hopefully, we (local teams) can go out there and win some of these games. Go Vegas football,” Gorman coach Tony Sanchez said.
Playing out-of-the-area competition has become a trend for Las Vegas teams over the past few seasons. Previously, one or two schools would travel into Utah or other regional states. Now, several programs are trying to get games scheduled.
Centennial coach Leon Evans, whose team lost to Gorman in last season’s Sunset Regional championship game, realized one of the best ways to continue improving his program is to schedule a quality out-of-state opponent. Centennial was supposed to host Mountain Pointe on Sept. 7, but the Arizona school had to cancel when it was selected to play Gorman in the Sollenberger Classic. Evans, knowing the importance of getting a game, is now in talks with a school in New Mexico.
“It’s a measuring stick to see where our state is in comparison to others,” Evans said.
Gorman has six games scheduled against top national opponents next year: Mountain Pointe, Servite, Santa Margarita and Crespi highs of Southern California; Bergen Catholic of New Jersey; and Booker T. Washington, the defending Florida state championship.
Servite is one of the nation’s most respected programs, Bergen Catholic beat the Gaels last year, and Booker T. Washington might be the best team Gorman has played since it started scheduling elite teams about three years ago. They are 7-4 against national foes, playing most games on national television, which is a big-time sales pitch for the quality of players in Nevada.
The Gorman blueprint of playing the best in preparation for local competition can’t be disputed. Gorman, with confidence from beating or hanging tough in defeat against ranked foes, hasn’t lost to a Nevada team the past four seasons and has frequently been challenged.
Liberty, which lost to Gorman in last year’s state championship game, is following suit in scheduling. In addition to the Sollenberger game, Liberty in 2013 has games scheduled against Arizona state champion Hamilton High and Centennial High of Corona, Calif., which finished last fall ranked No. 17 by maxpreps.com after advancing to the CIF championship game.
“We have been real upfront with the kids,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said in January. “We have kind of preached to them our goals and where we want to take the program and how we want to make some noise on the national scene. They are excited. At the same time, they know we have to work hard and stay committed.”
When evaluator Tom Lemming first started scouting players more than 30 years ago, he didn’t even bother coordinating with coaches in Las Vegas. That was a day and age when Southern Nevada rarely sent a player to the next level and the area’s brand of football had a poor reputation.
About 10 years ago, however, he was urged by a reporter to include Southern Nevada in his annual tour of cities — he had traveled about 10,000 miles in 10 days when he was at Gorman last week. Lemming previously selected the players for the U.S. Army All-American game and USA Today All-American team, and currently hosts a high school television show on CBS Sports.
Four-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman, which has been ranked in the top 10 at the end of the past two seasons, brings the most notoriety to Las Vegas. But it’s more than them, Lemming said.
“Everyone has to come here because of Gorman,” Lemming said about college recruiters. “But after that, they are spreading out and going to other schools. And they like what they are seeing. There are a lot of ballplayers here in Las Vegas.”
Spring Valley, which missed the playoffs last season, will also play at Idaho State in the Rocky Mountain Rumble against host Pocatello High.
Grizzlies coach Marcus Teal, who played at Idaho State in the 1990s, considers the experience of traveling invaluable for his program. The players will have the opportunity to bond on the long bus ride, have something to motivate them during offseason practices and play against a team that might resemble programs they’ll face back in Las Vegas. Pocatello, just like Spring Valley’s Northwest League foes Arbor View and Palo Verde, are a power running team.
“Those Idaho teams, they like to run and bang the ball around,” Teal said. “It will be a good test for us to see what we need to do to prepare (for Arbor View and Palo Verde).”
In addition to getting their players ready for these important games, Teal and Talich also have to balance fundraising. The coaches estimate the trip to Idaho — including buses, hotel rooms and food for more about 50 players — will cost around $8,000.
But that’s a strain they are willing to endure because the benefits are so great, especially when it comes to representing the Silver State.
“We are not on the same scale as the Libertys and Gormans, and this might not be the glamour out-of-state game, but it is still the opportunity to (represent) Nevada football and be part of something special,” Teal said. “We want to play well enough to continue getting invited back and to show what Nevada football is all about.”
Other local teams will also play out-of-state opponents Aug. 30: Foothill travels to Utah's Desert Hills High, Green Valley hosts Basha High of Arizona and Shadow Ridge will host Snow Canyon of Utah. On Sept. 7, Bonanza will play Clayton Valley of California and Legacy will host Hurricane of Utah. Hurricane and Snow Canyon, which are about a two-hour drive away in Southern Utah, annually schedule games against Las Vegas teams.
Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.