West High School football is playing the No. 2-ranked team in the country. Here’s why the Panthers wanted the game

Q&A: Head coach Olosaa Solovi discusses the decision to play one of the top three teams in the country and what he hopes his players learn from it.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The West Panthers at practice in Salt Lake City during the 2017 season.

The West High School football team won its first game of the 2022 season, a 20-0 win over Clearfield that represented a good start toward the goal of a deep-enough run in the 6A tournament to plat at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The second game on the schedule for the Panthers, though, is a road affair against Mater Dei of California — a team ranked No. 1 in High School Football America’s preseason top 100 and No. 2 in the country by MaxPreps.

In your best Brian Windhorst voice, you might be asking, Why would the Panthers do that?

West coach Olosaa Solovi breaks down the daunting matchup and what he’s liked about his team so far this season.

What is it that made you think, “We should schedule possibly the best high school football team in the country”?

We wanted to take that next step in our program and start to be a perennial power in our state and to win a state championship. For us, we were not necessarily aiming to play the No. 1 team in the country. We wanted to play some good programs that would help us prepare to play the top programs in our state.

How to watch

West at Mater Dei (Calif.)

When: Aug. 19, 7 p.m.

Where: Mater Dei High School, Santa Ana, Calif.

Streaming: KSL

How did the the game with Mater Dei come about?

We’d been in talks for about a year. We had been reaching out to some schools that were maybe interested. And obviously, we’re not a school that’s out there nationally. So a lot of schools were kind of turning us down. But Mater Dei was in a situation where not a lot of schools wanted to play them. We got a phone call from their representatives asking us that we have been inquiring out nationally for a school to play. When they called, I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know if we’re necessarily for that.’ But I just kind of took a seat down and was like, hey, you know what, if we’re really wanting to be a consistent, successful program year in year out, when this opportunity came I just couldn’t pass it up.

How have your team and the coaching staff been preparing for this challenge?

Mentally, you can’t really prepare for a team like this because talent-wise, you’re not going to match up. I think for us, we’re just trying to mentally just focus on us. We’ve kind of been real honest with these guys [and said], ‘Hey, we’re not going to match up talent-wise with these guys, but we’re not trying to.’ We’re just trying to play clean, play free, play with some heart and just focus on us getting better.

What else do you want to see out of this game?

I don’t think, as a coach, you ever go into any game believing you’re just going to lose and have a moral win. I think more of the standpoint I’ve taken is the reality is this is a talented team that kids are coming in nationally to play for them. We understand the scope and the challenge. We have a lot of respect for this program. We’re also not afraid. I’m not afraid of an outcome. I’m afraid of not preparing my kids to play with their heads up high and going after it. But again, I’m not going to sit and act like we don’t know who we’re playing. We know who we’re playing. We have a lot of respect, but we never go into any game believing we’re going to lose. We’re going in to try to win and whatever happens from there, happens.

What do you hope your team takes away from this to use later this season?

We’re just looking for guys that can play in the moment. It’ll probably be the biggest crowd that a lot of these kids have played in front. It’s a home opener. But I think we really want to come out of this thing obviously healthy, like anybody else. But I think we’re looking for players that are like — the game’s on the line, the moment is a big moment and who’s going to rise to that occasion? So still a lot of question marks out there, and we’re looking for those to see who’s not afraid of this moment. We’re gaining to get to Rice-Eccles. That’s basically our mindset. And in order to get there, you can’t beat yourself. And when you get there, you obviously can’t be afraid of the moment, and that’s what we’re really preparing for and trying to find coming out of this game.

It’s only been one week, one game. But what have you liked about your team so far this season? What encourages you about the trajectory of what the team can be this year?

I think we have good leadership. I think I’ve had some great leaders in the past couple of years I’ve been here. But I think overall, from top to bottom, the leadership is better. We have a lot more leaders this year than I’ve ever had.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.