Bishop Gorman Rises to the Challenge

Long a state powerhouse, this year the high school's football team is out to prove they're the best in the country

Bishop Gorman football coach Tony Sanchez/ Photo by Jon Estrada

Bishop Gorman football coach Tony Sanchez/ Photo by Jon Estrada

Six years into coach Tony Sanchez’s tenure, Bishop Gorman’s football team is no longer competing for state championships. Oh, sure, the Gaels’ 2014 season will most likely culminate with a Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association title, as it has for each of the past five years. And raising the trophy will surely be satisfying for the players and coaches. But Gorman has so greatly distanced itself from the rest of its Nevada competition under Sanchez—average score of those five title games: 57-14—that state championships are no longer an adequate measuring stick for the program.

Under Sanchez’s guidance, Gorman has transformed into a legitimate national power. So much so that when USA Today released its preseason rankings two weeks ago, the Gaels were No. 1. Not in the state—in the country.

It was a huge milestone for the program, which had never previously been ranked No. 1 in a national poll. And with a roster that boasts more than 10 players with Division I-A scholarship offers, there’s a real chance the Gaels can live up to the preseason hype, run the table and possess that No. 1 ranking when it matters most: at season’s end.

Staying true to the football coach’s handbook, Sanchez runs through the usual clichés of it being a long season and championships being won on the field, not won on paper. But he also acknowledges a program-wide sense of pride that comes with the No. 1 ranking.

“I think it indicates that we’ve got a good, solid program here,” says Sanchez, who previously coached at California High in San Ramon, California. “We can play with anybody. Now, it doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game we play, but we’re up there with the [nation’s] elite schools. And the kids are obviously all fired up about it. As much as I tell them to ignore it or not to talk about it, they’re going to get excited about it.”

It’s taken six years to get to this point. When Sanchez arrived before the 2009 season, Gorman’s program could be classified as very good, but not great. The Gaels were coming off a 12-2 season, but despite a consistent enrollment and significant financial advantage, the private Catholic school had won just one state title since 1983 and only seven in its first 54 years of existence.

Sanchez immediately went about remaking the program, and he did it by raising the stakes. The weight room was no longer an optional summertime activity—Sanchez made it a structured, team-wide priority. Such attention to detail carried over to other aspects of the program, as the coach challenged his players to become more disciplined in every aspect of life, from committing fewer penalties on the field to getting better grades to properly tucking in their jerseys.

Sanchez says it wasn’t until about midway through that first season that his players fully bought into that approach, but once they did, it became the foundation upon which Sanchez’s dynasty has been constructed. The Gaels went on to win the 2009 state title and repeated the feat each of the next four seasons, in the process producing 24 players who earned Division I-A scholarships.

Senior tight end Alize Jones has seen his teammates develop steadily under Sanchez, and he credits his coach for molding him into a highly coveted college recruit. “When we first got here, we were very undisciplined,” says Jones, who has committed to UCLA. “We were so immature. It was a culture shock. As the years have gone on, we’ve built that maturity and learned a lot about leadership and being part of a team.

“When I first [arrived], I was just out there playing, just an athlete. Getting coached up by Coach Sanchez and the rest of the staff has helped me out a lot.”

In addition to building up his players, Sanchez also built up Gorman’s national brand by scheduling more aggressively. He took on highly ranked teams from across the country in an effort to raise Gorman’s profile, and this season is no different: The Gaels’ first six games are against out-of-state opponents, and three of those teams are also ranked in the USA Today preseason Top 25. On September 26, Bishop Gorman, which entered last season ranked No. 21 in USA Today’s preseason poll, will host St. John Bosco (Bellflower, California), the No. 2 team in the country.

Those types of marquee matchups generate excitement within the community. They also inspire more players to come out for football. When Sanchez arrived, the Gaels dressed about 50 players for varsity games; this season, the roster will exceed 70.

It’s a perfect model of success fueling more success. Which is to say Bishop Gorman’s rise to the top likely won’t be a one-off deal. With Sanchez leading the way, the Gaels figure to be battling the big boys for prep-football supremacy for many years to come.