Winning a state championship is the ultimate goal for every high school football team.
But for a large group of teams in Nevada, that goal has been unattainable.
With the dominance of national power Bishop Gorman, which has won 12 of the past 13 championships in the state’s top classification, it was almost predetermined every year who would win the title, shutting out a large number of teams from even entertaining that goal.
But after an eventful realignment process, the dream of winning a state title has become realistic for more schools.
Class 5A, the top classification, will be split into three divisions and add two state title games, meaning seven state champions will be crowned in Nevada this fall.
Southern Nevada teams in the new 5A divisions begin the season with new hope.
“It’s wide open,” Palo Verde coach Joe Aznarez said. “It gives a lot of programs in town hope that they can go in, have a great season and be able to win their last game of the season.”
Class 5A Division I, the top division, is made up of seven Southern schools — Arbor View, Bishop Gorman, Coronado, Desert Pines, Liberty, Shadow Ridge and Silverado — and no Northern schools.
Seven Southern schools will compete in 5A Division II — Basic, Durango, Faith Lutheran, Foothill, Green Valley, Las Vegas High and Sierra Vista — along with six Northern schools.
Six Southern schools will compete in 5A Division III — Cimarron-Memorial, Clark, Desert Oasis, Legacy, Palo Verde and Spring Valley — along with six Northern schools.
“It’s a good thing for some of these divisions and schools where they are put in a tier with some programs that are more like them,” Basic coach Jeff Cahill said. “For the kids, it gives them a good chance to compete. There should always be some tweaks here and there, but I think, for the kids, this is the best thing, to be in a division with other schools that are the same as you.”
The realignment proposals for the upcoming football season seemed to change by the minute.
The first proposal by the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association had an 11-team 5A, split into two divisions, with just Southern schools and the top classification of Northern schools electing to drop to 4A.
A 14-team Southern 5A, with an Open Division championship for the top six teams, was later approved by the NIAA Realignment Committee. But after three schools had their appeals approved to move back down to 4A, a plan for a one-division, 10-team 5A South with nine league games and one nonleague game was presented, despite being vehemently opposed by Gorman.
The plan appeared to have traction and was one of two proposals in the final rounds of discussions. But, ultimately, a proposal from NIAA executive director Donnie Nelson — which split 5A into three divisions and added two more state championship games — received support from schools and was given final approval by the NIAA Board of Control in March.
“I was afraid that the little guys might get caught in a bad spot,” Spring Valley coach Marcus Teal said. “I thought they did it right and the teams that made up the three divisions, I think it’s a good mix and they’ll be really competitive leagues. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.”
Also included in the new alignment is promotion and relegation. The top two 5A Division II, III and 4A schools in the regular-season standings will move up a class the following year, and the bottom two 5A Division I, II and III schools in the standings will drop down a class, regardless of postseason performance.
With the road to a state championship becoming more open, coaches of Division II and III schools went back to work during the offseason to let their players know about the changes and prepare for a more even playing field.
“When I look at the 5A Division II, I can’t tell you who the favorite is,” Green Valley coach Clay Mauro said. “Las Vegas does a fantastic job, Foothill and Basic do great jobs, and a team like Faith Lutheran — just top to bottom those are a lot of great programs here in the South.”
Azarnez was an assistant at Palo Verde when it won the 4A state title — then the state’s top classification — in 2004 and lost in the 2008 title game.
Aside from 2019, when Liberty upset Gorman in the Desert Region title game on its way to the 4A state title, 2008 was the last time a school not named Gorman won the title in the top classification.
Aznarez said that it isn’t predetermined anymore who will win the state title in the other 5A divisions and that it’s motivating to have a legitimate chance to win.
“No coach in town thinks they’re going to lose any game they’re playing in, but the reality is that if we play a perfect game against certain opponents in town, you could still lose by 50 points,” Aznarez said. “That’s not the case moving forward for some of these other tiers in 5A. You set goals for your kids, and your kids can actually believe in some of the goals you set.”
Gorman defeated Palo Verde 70-0 in a regular-season game last year.
With the dominance of Gorman, Mauro said there isn’t going to be a perfect system and that Gorman cannot be punished for the standards it has set.
But after talking to his team and other coaches in the league, Mauro said Division II schools are reinvigorated for the upcoming season.
“When you actually have a chance to have success, that’s when you see programs grow,” Mauro said.
‘Makes them hungry’
Spring Valley spent the past two seasons in 4A, and Teal noticed his players were excited about being in a more competitive league and having the chance to win in the postseason. Through the offseason, Teal and other coaches are noticing their players embrace the opportunity to win a state title at the 5A level.
“It makes them hungry,” Teal said. “They want to be at practice. They want to do one more play. They don’t want to end practice. They want to keep going.
“The guys are in the weight room. Attendance in the summer is up. New kids are trying to come out to the program because they see that you have a shot to be really good. They want to be a part of that.”
Mauro said with high school football growing in Southern Nevada and abundant young talent in the city, the new divisions and added state titles can be good for competition.
“Quality games are going to be played,” Mauro said. “For us, for the first time in at least the last 10 years, it gives us a glimmer into the light. At the end of the road, there isn’t this giant blue-and-orange thing (Gorman’s colors). We actually have a bit of a shot, and I think a lot of our teams in our conference are thinking that.”
Teal agrees and said the players will be happier preparing for games they believe they can win.
“It’s all about the kids,” Teal said. “If you’re giving them a great experience and great opportunity, no matter where you play or who you play, you will get some of the best high school football you can find.”