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Sollenberger's legacy, work prove immeasurable

Jose E. Garcia
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Replacing the efforts of one man isn't going to be easy.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association, high school coaches and friends of Barry Sollenberger, the state's beloved high school sports historian who died this summer, are discovering that every day. Sollenberger left behind a wealth of information that's going to take several months and several people to sift through.

Aside from the numerous boxes and filing cabinets, Sollenberger also built a local and national high school sports network that is also feeling the reverberations of losing Sollenberger's friendship and knowledge. 

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Several people are trying to pick up where Sollenberger left off, but friends and colleagues say nobody can replace Sollenberger's historical acumen and dogged persistence to dig up information. The AIA is going to rely on an army of friends and coaches to continue building and preserving the state's rich high school sports history Sollenberger guarded.

"Somebody can take Barry's job," said Ron Cosner, the softball and former football coach at Tempe Marcos de Niza and friend of Sollenberger. "But replace him? No, no way."

When he couldn't get a job as a history teacher, Sollenberger, an Arizona State alumnus, decided to get into the high school sports business when he was about 26, he told The Republic in a 1981 story.

This year marked the 35th year that Sollenberger published some sort of high school sports magazine. He was adding the final touches to his most successful annual, Phoenix Metro Football, when he passed away from heart failure June 23.

Two of Sollenberger's closest friends, brothers Dave and Dan Kukulski, will continue publishing the magazine, which debuted in 1986.

Dave and Dan added the final details to this season's magazine, which debuted Tuesday. The Kukulski brothers publish more state high school state championship programs than any other publishing company in the United States, Dave said.

"The magazine won't be the same, though, without Barry," Dave said. "I can't duplicate the historical stuff he added."

Dave and Dan are also going to finish a hardbound book about the first 100 years of high school football in Arizona that Sollenberger was working on, Dave said.

Doug Huff, a former sports editor in West Virginia for 35 years, is also going to miss Sollenberger's insight and friendship they maintained for 30-plus years. Huff relied on Sollenberger's knowledge of high schools in the Southwest for preseason polls and All-America teams Huff produced for Street and Smith magazine.

"Barry had a big impact nationally," Huff said. "He was known way beyond the borders of Arizona. He's one of those irreplaceable people, but life goes on. You have to pass the torch.

"He laid the groundwork and foundation for Arizona high school sports."

The AIA has already hired someone to pick up where Sollenberger left off at the AIA, which the 60-year-old joined in 1999.

Brian Bolitho, a former intern with the AIA who worked with Sollenberger, was hired last week as the AIA's full-time sports information director. Bolitho, 26, is trying to read the 900-plus e-mails Sollenberger sent on his AIA computer to get acquainted with the people Sollenberger worked with.

"I'm just trying to live up to the expectations Barry set," Bolitho said. "It's going to be challenging."

Bolitho already has something in common with his former mentor.

Bolitho loved attending high school football games after graduating from Horizon. Sollenberger usually attended two football games every Friday, and Bolitho will continue that trend.

Bolitho also will organize reunions of anniversary title teams at championship games and help update the AIA's Web site archives, jobs Sollenberger relished. Those archives help make the AIA's Web site arguably the best high school sports association Web site in the nation, AIA Executive Director Dr. Harold Slemmer said.

Slemmer said he and Sollenberger discussed finding a location that can house and exhibit the memorabilia Sollenberger collected. It's an idea that Slemmer will look at to honor Sollenberger's legacy.

"Barry's legacy is that he was somebody who cared enough about our high schools' past," Slemmer said. "He was willing to preserve it and save it when our lives were too busy to do it ourselves."

The AIA is planning a couple of more ways to honor Sollenberger.

The helmets of football players will probably carry stickers that read 'Barry' this season, and there will be a moment of silence during the first football games of the season.

The AIA is also planning on giving a journalism award to students in Sollenberger's name.

Sollenberger's indelible imprint will also remain at the AIA's building in north Phoenix. The walls of a long hallway are filled with poster-size photos of former prominent Arizona high school athletes that Sollenberger dug up and hung.

High school sports administrators from different states were always impressed with the walls of fame and always asked how they could duplicate it.

"They didn't have a Barry Sollenberger," Slemmer said. "That was the key. We were blessed with his life."

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