When asked about his team’s biggest question mark heading into the season, third-year Bishop Gorman football coach Tony Sanchez didn’t hesitate.
“Our biggest question is we have to replace Collin Ditsworth,” Sanchez said.
When the biggest problem facing a high school football team is replacing a kicker, even one as good as Ditsworth, you know the outlook is rosy.
The two-time defending Class 4A state champion Gaels begin the season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Chaparral (Ariz.) at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., in the annual Sollenberger Classic. A tape-delayed broadcast of the game can be seen on Fox Sports West (49) at 9:30 p.m.
Moapa Valley, which finished second in the state in Class 3A last season, plays Show Low (Ariz.) at 3 p.m. It’s the first time two games will be played in the Sollenberger Classic.
Gorman enters the season ranked No. 7 nationally by Rivals.com and faces a Chaparral team ranked No. 30.
“It’s nice to start against a good opponent,” senior running back Shaquille Powell said. “It really challenges you, and you get to see what you’re really made out of. If you pass the test, you’re a tough team. If you don’t, you’ve got things to work on.
“And I think we’re a pretty tough team.”
The Gaels return 10 offensive starters from a team that averaged 46.1 points per game and scored 50 or more seven times.
Gorman returns five offensive linemen who started at one point in the season, led by three-year starters Ronnie Stanley, Ron Scoggins and Nick Strehlow.
“Our big boys, three of them are three-year returning starters,” Sanchez said. “So they’ve been through about every circumstance you can imagine. They go into this very, very confident with their ability to dominate, not just compete.”
That physical presence up front should make the team’s running game difficult to stop.
Powell rushed for 1,292 yards and 17 touchdowns despite missing five games with a hamstring injury.
His backup, Justin Sweet, rushed for 767 yards and nine scores and was an All-Southwest League second-team pick. And Nathan Starks added 321 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman and already has a scholarship offer from Colorado.
“The nice thing is Shaq doesn’t have to carry the potatoes over his shoulder the whole time,” Sanchez said.
The coach is especially high on Starks, who he said ran a 10.7-second 100-meter dash in the spring.
“He’ll be a household name by the end of this year,” Sanchez said. “The kid is just, he’s amazing. But he’s young, so he’s got to settle in.”
The passing game should be outstanding as well, with two-year starter Jarrett Solomon back at quarterback after passing for 2,412 yards and 41 touchdowns as a sophomore.
His top target should be junior receiver Ryan Smith, who caught 38 passes for 935 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“When we scrimmage against each other, it’s hard to go against them on defense, so I can only imagine what it is for other teams,” said senior Marc Philippi, who will play some outside linebacker this season after earning all-state honors at safety last year.
Philippi’s defensive teammates aren’t as highly touted, but the team does return six starters on that side of the ball, as well. The Gaels must replace all-state defensive linemen Jaylon Jackson and Jalen Grimble, along with all-state linebacker Ronald Lyles and all-state defensive back Evan Zeger.
“Everybody’s questioning our defense just because we lost a couple guys,” Philippi said. “But we’ll come out and play hard and show everybody how good we are. That’s the question we have to address. It’s not much of a question for us because we feel we’re prepared on defense. We’ll just have to show everybody else.”
And even though nearly everyone expects Gorman to be the team to beat again this season, no one sets the bar higher than the players.
“We expect to be perfect,” Stanley said. “That’s always the expectation of the Gaels. We expect the best out of everyone and nothing less.”