Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer return with a breakdown of the two games as part of the Sollenberger Classic. Can Bishop Gorman win its first national game of the year against Arizona's Chaparral High? Moapa Valley also challenges Show Low at the University of Phoenix stadium this weekend.
Seventy-eight players will dress for the Bishop Gorman High football team Saturday for its season opener.
And although some might not step on the field against nationally ranked Chaparral High of Scottsdale, Ariz., at the Sollenberger Classic in Phoenix, each is being held to the same standard as the star performers of the two-time defending state champions.
A practice last week in the unbearable triple-digit Las Vegas heat served as a perfect example.
When Gorman’s kickoff returners fumbled on consecutive plays during a special teams drill — a miscue punishable by a series of tough exercise drills — senior fullback Kaimen Banda made sure to participate alongside teammates despite being on crutches after tearing his ACL earlier in camp. Doing 25 up-downs, a lap around the field and a series of sprints toward the end of an intense practice appeared to be a painful punishment, but the players realize it beats having a costly turnover.
While his teammates were flying down to the turf at Fertitta Field and quickly bouncing back up in unison as part of the up-downs, Banda laid on his back doing sit-ups. Banda could be lost for the season, but like several of his teammates, is determined to be along for the ride in what is lining up to be a memorable run.
"We are a team and just because I'm hurt doesn't mean I'm no longer part of the team," Banda said. "It's my senior year, you know, and I'm hoping to be back for the last few games. Doing everything they do makes me that much stronger."
During coach Tony Sanchez’s first year in 2009, 47 players were on the varsity roster. There will be 68 on the regular roster this fall, with 10 being called up from the lower levels for likely all three of Gorman’s games against nationally respected opponents.
“Once you are injured, you are still on this team,” Sanchez said. “You do what you physically can do. There is no sitting in the stands or being gone from the team for two weeks. That is imposed by the kids themselves, not the coaches. That is their expectation.
“They all realize there is nobody more important than anyone else on the team,” he continued. “(Star player) Shaquille Powell understands that a kid who might be a third-string guy is just as important to the team because of the effort he puts in.”
Gorman, which has one loss to a local opponent in winning three of past four state titles, is the hands-down favorite to win another state crown. But, in a season of endless possibilities, that might not be the only championship it wins.
Gorman is ranked No. 7 nationally by RivalsHigh.com and No. 10 by Maxpreps.com, and has the schedule to merit talks of being selected national champions. Although players and coaches say winning the Nevada crown will always be objective No. 1, they can’t help listening to whispers that a perfect record could earn a fictitious national title. Several teams will finish undefeated and, since schools can’t play each other to decide, websites determine the national champ.
Just don’t expect Gorman’s players to be worried about the process. When asked about the prospects of national accolades, Powell quickly answered before the question was finished, saying “Win state. We want to be No. 1 in the state. That is the focus.”
Sanchez added, “We will never stop talking about the Nevada state title. I don’t care what you do, if you trip up (locally), it doesn’t make a difference (to national voters).”
Gorman, at least until its somewhat annual playoff game with rival Palo Verde, isn’t expected to struggle locally, where its last regular-season loss came in 2006. In its two state championship victories, in 2009 against Del Sol and last fall against Reno’s McQueen High, Gorman has won by a combined 102-21.
The problems have come against out-of-state opponents.
Sanchez is 28-2 in two seasons at the helm, with both defeats coming last fall to ranked opponents — 24-17 against Arizona’s Hamilton High in the Sollenberger Classic and 28-14 at power De La Salle of Northern California.
But considering Gorman started mostly underclassmen last year, including at all the skilled positions, and still had second-half leads in both losses, it’s easy to imagine a different outcome this time around.
“Our goal is to be undefeated. We expect to be perfect,” said Ronnie Stanley, Gorman’s senior offensive tackle who has scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Auburn and USC. “We always feel we can play the best. If we could play the best every week, we would.”
They will get that chance Saturday. And again six days later.
In addition to Chaparral, which is ranked No. 24 by Maxpreps, Gorman on Aug. 26 will host No. 2-ranked Armwood High of the Tampa, Fla., area, on ESPN. Both teams have major Division I recruits at several positions, such as quarterback Connor Brewer (a Texas commit) and explosive receiver Devonte Neal (20-plus scholarship offers) of Chaparral. Exiting the month with two wins will be easier said than done.
“The tougher the schedule is, the better you become as a team,” Sanchez said. “We are a good football team. We’ll be fine in that six-day span. We’ll have to fight our tails to get W’s.”
The national audience — additionally, Saturday's game will be televised by FOX Sports West — will see a Gorman team loaded with top-level college prospects, especially on its high-scoring offense. A trio of senior offensive linemen — Stanley, Ron Scoggins Jr. and Nick Strehlow — have started every game since their sophomore year. The same can be said for junior quarterback Anu Solomon (4,445 career passing yards and 60 touchdowns) and junior receiver Ryan Smith (935 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010).
At 5-foot-11, 205-pounds, Powell is one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. With an aggressive running style, he has rushed for 2,782 yards and 46 touchdowns the past two years. More important, he rises to the occasion in the big games, gaining 196 yards against Hamilton and 113 yards and two touchdowns against De La Salle.
“I have to make big plays. That is what big players do,” Powell said.
If Gorman does have a weakness, it could be defensively. The Gaels return six defensive starters from last year’s team that recorded eight shutouts and surrendered just 80 points in 15 games, having to replace a leading tackler in Ronald Lyles and star player Jalen Grimble (Miami).
Safety Marc Philippi and defensive lineman Zach Hutchins are two key returners, although players such as linebacker Ben Guida, defensive back Jelani Wells and sophomore defensive lineman Zach Singer all contributed last year and are expected to have solid seasons.
“The defense is not an Achilles heel,” Sanchez said. “It is progressing just fine. When you have a good program, that means every year you are losing great players. Are they young? Absolutely. Are they going to have growing pains? Absolutely. But, by the end of the year, they will be just like any other Gorman defense.”
And, by the end of the year, Sanchez knows his team — all 78 players — has the potential to accomplish greatness. Later in the practice last week, on one of the last plays, the team’s backup quarterback dropped a snap to signal another round of exercises in punishment.
As soon as the ball hit the turf, the players knew what to expect. All 78 started doing up-downs, including Banda again joining teammates. Earlier in the week, he delivered an emotional speech to teammates about how important being part of the Gorman team was to him and how he planned to contribute in any way possible while injured.
“We talk more about life than we do winning and losing,” the coach said. “They realize it is about life, it is about commitment, it is about community and it is about work ethic. Once they understand that, it is something they want to be part of.”