Bishop Gorman football coach Tony Sanchez addresses his team one final time after practice Thursday in preparation for Friday's Sollenberger Classic showdown with Arizona power Mountain Pointe. In a second Sollenberger showdown, Salpointe Catholic (Tucson, Ariz.) takes on Liberty (Henderson, Nev.) at Bishop Gorman on Saturday.
On Thursday, he was selling his Gaels on the their rugged 2013 season. It was an easy pitch.
The No. 25 team in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 national preseason rankings opens a Murderer's Row schedule at home against one of Arizona's finest — rising-and-talented Mountain Pointe (Phoenix) — in the 8th annual Barry Sollenberger Classic Friday.
Gorman tight end Alize Jones is one of the country's most coveted juniors.
They back up Friday's game against perennial Southern California powers Servite (Anaheim), Santa Margarita (Rancho Santa Margarita) and Crespi (Encino), followed with at trip to New Jersey for Bergen Catholic (Oradell) before a week off to rest up for a home date with No. 9 Washington (Miami, Fla.).
All of it is in preparation for a fifth straight state title — and frankly — a possible mythical national title bid. The Gaels have been in the mix for a half-decade now. If they run the 2013 slate with this kind of schedule, they should definitely be in the conversation.
"Whoa," Sanchez said. "One game at a time. We're light years (relatively) from even thinking about that kind of stuff. That kind of thinking gets you in trouble. We have one single mind set today and that's an elite Mountain Pointe team."
The Pride has indeed arrived since successful and charming coach Norris Vaughan arrived five years ago — the same span as Sanchez at Gorman. Mountain Pointe has piled up a 40-11 record in that time and the Pride lost to Hamilton in last year's state 5A Division I finals.
They enter 2013 ranked second in Arizona (No. 19 nationally by Rivals) and boasting speed, a returning 2,200-yard, 31-touchdown quarterback in Antonio Hinojosa and some top Division I talent like 300-pound guard and defensive tackle Natrell Curtis and reigning state Gatorade Player of the Year and receiver Jalen Brown.
"They're one of the most talented teams I've had, but talent doesn't make a team," Vaughan said. "We won't know how good we can be until we are in the season, but there is no question this team can be one of the teams left at the end of the year."
Wesley Payne is a star two-way player for Mountain Pointe.
It's been a long spring and summer for the Gaels. They've had to replace four-year starting quarterback Anu Solomon who graduated, and the program's top recruit ever, running back Nathan Starks, who was dismissed from school.
The long road of preparation finally ended Thursday and when Sanchez, a fiery sort, gathered the team for one final pow-wow, he addressed the Gaels' sweat-stained road behind and potential golden path ahead.
He noted the team had just 17 days off since spring ball began, that a national media and television audience (Fox Sports 1) are spotlighting the game Friday and that poise and focus are vital.
"It's going to be frenzied, but don't go nuts," he said. "Let our student body go crazy."
Randall Cunningham Jr., Bishop Gorman
"Your blessed beyond measure," he said.
Finally he went back to all the hard work and sacrifices each had made over the off-season, noting the heat, and sweat and the minimal days off.
"I wish you luck gentlemen," he said. "This is the fun part. All the truly hard work is done. It's ‘Go Time.' "
Here are 5 top storylines heading into Friday's Mountain View at Bishop Gorman game.
1. The replacements
Daniel Stewart has tremendous feet and is quickly gaining college attention with his sub-4.5 speed in the 40-yard-dash and superb feet and vision.
With sub 4.6-speed in the 40, a strong, accurate arm and a national-best high jumper (7 feet, 3.25 inches) to his credit, Cunningham is one of the country's most unique athletes. He appears on his way to Baylor. Stewart, a sub 4.5 40 sprinter, was the MVP of the Sacramento State camp.
"When you have those two guys in the backfield, it's sort of a double-headed monster," Sanchez said. "I know people were wondering how are we going to be in the backfield. We're different, but we're still darned good."
2. Star light, star bright
Who handles the spotlight best in these games often comes out on top. Gorman has been on national TV 10 times since 2009, winning seven. This is Mountain View's first such national dance, but the Pride won't give the proverbial deer-in-headlights performance says running back and star linebacker Wesley Payne.
"The national TV doesn't mean anything once you get in the game," he said. "We are ready physically and mentally to get the job done. We are not worried about anything else."
Said Gorman fullback and slot receiver Obim Okeke: "We've played in 10 national games before. We're used to this and will handle it like it's another big game."
Said Stewart: "We're ready because we've practiced so hard for so long. Our preparation was great. (Mountain Pointe) looks like a real good team. But we're real good too."
3. Reputation matters
Mountain Pointe star two-way lineman Natrell Curtis is inspiring one Bishop Gorman center.
Singer has had photos and Curtis' number plastered everywhere, including his team locker. "He wants to prove he belongs with the best," Sanchez said.
4. Catch them if you can
Jalen Brown, Mountain Pointe
"(Brown and Emanuel Butler) are really good," Sanchez said. "Those guys can score from any where on the field. You have to do a phenomenal job to keep them out of the end zone."
Though Mountain Pointe historically is a 60-40 run team, Sanchez expects the experienced and accurate Hinojosa to throw much more often on Friday.
There's no Gorman tape on its new starting linebacker Nela Otukolo because he transferred from St. Louis (Honolulu, Hawaii) in the spring. There will likely be plenty of highlight reel tape after Friday's game.
The 5-11, 245-pound bowling ball might be the best linebacker Sanchez has ever coached, or for that matter, coached against. Gorman traveled to Hawaii last season and beat St. Louis 52-40.
Bishop Gorman will unveil bright new orange helmets before a packed stadium and national television audience.
Otukolo has many friends he stays in contact with in Honolulu, all of whom will be tuning in on national television on Friday he said.
"It's sort of a lot of pressure," he said of playing on TV and playing Gorman's tough schedule. "But I'm playing a game that I love. I have to remember that and just go out and do my thing."
The biggest adjustment for Otukolo, he said, was the nonstop practice schedule. "We didn't have spring ball at St. Louis," he said. "Nothing in the summer either. We'd show up two weeks before the games and get after it."
Said Sanchez: "He never complained about it. He loves it. The kids love him. He's a fantastic teammate and player. He blows people up and has a nonstop motor."
E-mail MaxPreps senior writer and columnist Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MitchMashMax.
MaxPreps correspondent and Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer Jason P. Skoda contributed to this report.