Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Aug. 17, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer are back with a comprehensive — or some would say long-winded — look at high school football. They go division-by-division and team-by-team in this exhaustive 2012 debut. So settle in on the couch with a Snuggie or plan to make a round-trip drive from Boulder City to Shadow Ridge in order to listen to this one.
When Moapa Valley running back Conner Mortensen looks back on his high school football career years from now, he knows one of the first memories will be his team’s dramatic victory in the 2011 Sollenberger Classic.
Moapa Valley shocked Arizona’s Show Low, 28-26, at the University of Phoenix Stadium behind a breakout performance from then-junior Mortensen.
“When we won, it felt like we were No. 1 in the world,” Mortensen said. “I think it’s because everyone thought we were going to lose. I think we have the same feeling now.”
To their pleasant surprise, Sollenberger Classic officials invited the Pirates back for the second consecutive year. Moapa Valley meets Blue Ridge, the defending Division IV state champions in Arizona, at 3 p.m. Saturday to open its season at the home of the Arizona Cardinals.
It’s a game that projects as even more difficult than last year’s matchup with Show Low. The Yellow Jackets have the most heralded player on the field in senior linebacker Chans Cox, who has committed to Arizona State and could start for the Sun Devils next year.
Maxpreps.com ranks Blue Ridge as one of the top 500 high school teams in the country. Moapa Valley couldn’t even crack the website’s top 3,000.
“Hands down, we are the underdogs,” Moapa Valley coach Brent Lewis said. “But we were the underdogs last year. I think after the Show Low performance, it’s more reasonable to think we can go up there and play with them.”
At this time last year, Lewis figured the Pirates would lean heavily on running back Sean McConnell in the Sollenberger Classic. Instead, the eventual state runner-ups used the combination of McConnell and Mortensen that proved vital in notching their fourth 10-win season of Lewis’ career.
McConnell rushed 10 times for 66 yards and two touchdowns against Show Low, while Mortensen powered his way to 83 yards on 18 carries.
“I wasn’t even expecting to have a game like that last year,” Mortensen said. “I just happened to get the opportunity and run with it.”
Both running backs — who combined for more than 2,000 yards last season — are back as part of a core of 15 returning starters. Moapa Valley may have a future FBS college player of its own this year in defensive lineman Matthew McDermand, a 6-foot-6 245-pound junior.
Senior Josh Repp and junior Lance Hilton figure to split time at quarterback until Lewis decides whom to stick with full time.
“We have key guys coming back, but we’re not without question marks,” Lewis said. “Our quarterback issue has to be settled earlier in the year. It will be interesting to see who steps up.”
The Yellow Jackets also return a fair share of starters. Few players in the nation can claim to have enjoyed the same success as Blue Ridge seniors.
The team has gone 39-1 over the last three years, capturing two state championships to put their school’s total at 14.
“When my coaching career is over, I hope my resume looks like Coach (Paul) Moro’s,” Lewis said. “Ten of his 12 championships have been undefeated seasons. That’s unheard of. Obviously, he has a great program and good kids. From what I’ve seen, we have our hands full.”
Lewis may sound in awe of Blue Ridge’s prestige, but his players have largely ignored the aura. Sure, they looked at film and studied the Yellow Jackets, but it ended there.
The Pirates learned they could play with anyone in this game last year.
“We want to go down there and prove everyone wrong again,” Mortensen said.