For the second time in three years, the all-stars from the Modesto/Merced/Turlock area of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section go on a 30-point scoring spree to come from behind and beat the North in 44th annual Lions All-Star Football Classic. It’s the fourth win in five years in the series for the South and this time the win was perhaps even more improbable given the firepower on the North roster.
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It was one of those games on Saturday night at Tracy’s Wayne Schneider Stadium in which any sportswriter would be tempted to start writing the first few paragraphs during the halftime break.
Maybe it was the 90-degree heat at kickoff cooling off or maybe it was some colorful words yelled passionately inside the lockerroom, but whatever the reason the bottom line was the South all-stars taking a 17-0 deficit and lambasting it in the second half for a turnaround 30-17 win over the North in the 44th annual Lions All-Star Football Classic.
It was the second time in three years that the South team (representing basically Stanislaus and Merced counties) scored 30 straight points to beat the North (which are players mostly from Stockton, Lodi, Tracy, Manteca and the foothills) after trailing by more than two scores. Two years ago, the South did it in a 51-38 victory. Now, counting this year’s win, the South has also won in the series four times in five years. The North, however, still leads in overall wins at 24 and now holds a 24-19-1 margin.
“The difference is that people started playing and stopped complaining,” said Turlock’s Danny Velasquez, the MVP of the game who led the second-half turnaround with two touchdown passes and two touchdown runs. “It was a great way to end the week. I had a lot of fun with all the guys.”
“I just let a lot of the kids talk at halftime,” said Los Banos head coach Dustin Caropreso, who was the head coach of the South team. “I told them you have 24 minutes left and some of you are never going to play again. We knew we were one play away from making it a whole new ballgame.”
Even with a 17-0 deficit, Caropreso knew that was possible because in the Lions Game there is a 10-point rule put in to add competitive equity. That game rule states that when a team is trailing by 10 points or more and scores, then that team actually gets the ball right back on the next kickoff. When the South team went on its 30-point run two years ago, the rule gave it back even on more than one possession. The rule now only can give the ball right back once.
The South got its big play on an interception in the third quarter by Turlock Pitman’s Devan Bass. It wasn’t just the interception, but he was able to bring back the theft more than 50 yards, which set up the first touchdown in the comeback. That came on a 26-yard pass from Velasquez to Modesto Christian’s Chris Brown on the first play after the interception.
Then after getting the ball right back on the 10-point rule, the South struck for another quick score. On what had to be the play of the night, Merced Golden Valley’s Cadrian McDaniels took in a short pass from Velasquez and weaved through the North defense for a 39-yard touchdown.
Velasquez, who was the MVP of the Central California Conference the last two seasons, finished with 122 yards rushing on 10 carries and completed nine of 16 passes for 135 yards.
Turnovers by the North also contributed to the big second half for the South. Still holding a 17-14 lead, the North turned it over for a second time in the half on a fumble. The South then kept up its momentum with a go-ahead touchdown drive. That series was capped by a 35-yard TD run by Velasquez with 50 seconds left in the third quarter.
For the rest of the game, the North team, which was led by Manteca East Union head coach Willie Herrera, just couldn’t sustain a drive due to an intense pass rush led by Defensive MVP Cullen Bearden of Oakdale. He finished with five sacks, one forced fumble and seven tackles.
“The difference was Danny’s speech at halftime,” said Bearden, who also was voted by the other players as the South team’s Most Inspirational Player. “I can’t tell you what he said because it shouldn’t be in the paper. A lot of other guys stepped up, too. (Johnathon) Becerra (Merced) was a mule on the other side all night long.”
Becerra finished with two and a half sacks while other defensive leaders for the South included Bass (who had a second interception in the fourth quarter), Modesto Downey’s Aaric Holt (seven tackles) and Modesto Central Catholic’s Cole Petlansky (five tackles, two pass breakups), a player known mostly last season as a quarterback.
The South team ended the scoring for the night on a 12-yard run by Velasquez with less than five minutes left and then on a safety when North quarterback Jake Dunniway (Stockton St. Mary’s) was sacked in the end zone by Bearden and Becerra.
In the first half, Dunniway traded series with Manteca East Union’s Jack Weaver. Both had success moving the offense down the field and it easily could have been a 24-0 lead at the break instead of 17-0 before the South rose up and stopped a North drive with less than one minute remaining in the second quarter.
Both of the North team’s scores came on passes from Dunniway to Stockton Stagg’s Cutrell Haywood, a connection many in the region wanted to see since Dunniway passed for 4,066 yards and 49 touchdowns last season for St. Mary’s while Haywood caught 100 passes for 1,644 yards and 22 TDs for Stagg.
The first touchdown came from 12 yards out in the first quarter on a back shoulder throw that Haywood made an adjustment on after coming out of his break. The second one came in the second quarter on a play in which Haywood beat two defenders on a pass that Dunniway heaved into traffic after avoiding the rush. Haywood was named the Offensive MVP for the game. Before that score, the North also scored on a 46-yard field goal by Ripon’s Thomas Sidtikan that had plenty of room to spare.
Haywood also played safety on defense and had two tackles and two pass deflections. The North’s defensive leaders included Bryce Kinsey of Ripon (eight tackles, two for loss), Andrew Farley from Weston Ranch of Stockton (seven tackles) and Isaiah Downes of Lincoln (three tackles, three pass breakups). Farley also was given an award as the North team’s Most Inspirational Player.
“It’s definitely been a nice way to end my career,” said Bearden, who was part of Oakdale’s CIF Division 3A state championship team last season and will play in another all-star game next week in Chowchilla. “I wanted to have a good game. I got back into doing what I love and that’s playing football.”