The 46th annual Central California Lions All-Star Football Game returned to Stockton on Saturday night after a seven-year break and it was a lucky seven for the victorious North squad. The team of players mostly from San Joaquin County edged the South 19-18 and also ended a six-year streak of winless games in the prestigious local series.
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It was one of those football games in which a fingertip may have been the difference. That’s what organizers and supporters of the Central California Lions All-Star Football Game crave the most and that’s what they got as the North team won over the South 19-18 in this year’s game played Saturday night at Lincoln High in Stockton.
The North team led by head coach Jason McCloskey (Mountain House) scored on a 39-yard touchdown pass with 2:26 left from Grant Stevenson (Stockton Lincoln) to Fletcher Pitts Jr. (Stockton Weston Ranch) in which Pitts broke several tackles along the visiting sideline. Kicking was difficult for both teams but after that score the PAT kick by John Arbuckle (San Andreas Calaveras) was good and the North had a 19-18 lead.
But the South team, guided by head coach Shaun King (Hughson), certainly wasn’t done. QB Xavier Rodriguez (Modesto Grace Davis) had heated up on his team’s previous series and with just under two minutes left had the South poised to win the game at the end after a 35-yard pass to Tyler Vargas (Newman Orestimba). It looked for a moment that the touchdown had been scored on a 10-yard run by Zaire Eugene (Modesto) with 1:40 left, but the score was nullified by a holding penalty. The North defense stiffened after that, especially with a ball-jarring hit on third down by Trevion Shaddrick-Harris (Tracy) against Vargas.
With 44 seconds left and with fourth down from the 15, King had to make the tough decision to go for a touchdown or try a field goal. He was confident that Matt Robinson (Turlock Pitman) would be able to convert from short distance. On the attempt, it appeared that Jordan Doyle of the North (Stockton St. Mary’s) had gotten a piece of his finger or hand on the ball. The kick fluttered far short of the goal post. On the play, however, two officials threw flags for roughing the kicker. The eight officials then conferenced and waved off the flags since the ball had been deflected. It wasn’t obvious to many that the ball had been touched, but those in the press box thought it had been and agreed that the officials got it correct.
In leading the North team to three scoring drives, including two touchdown passes in the second half, Stevenson emerged as the Wayne Schneider MVP for the game in a choice that was changing literally on every play in the last two possessions.
“I had total trust in those receivers,” said Stevenson, who will leave Stockton on July 8 to go to Tyler Junior College in Texas for the fall semester and where he’ll play next. “They showed me during the week that they would go get it in the air. I also couldn’t have done this without the line. They did a great job.
“It was an amazing experience to be with these guys. After we got down a few times, they never put their heads down. They played their hearts out. To close out high school in the last game with a win feels great.”
Before the last TD pass to Pitts, Stevenson had a 20-yard TD pass to Chaz Davis (Stockton Bear Creek) earlier in the fourth quarter. His passing also helped set up the team’s first score to open the game, which was nine-yard run by Vlad Sutherland (Mountain House).
“I’m happy Grant got to end his senior year this way,” said McCloskey. “I thought he deserved a second chance after the way his last season ended. He was great to work with and spent a lot of extra time in meetings with me understanding the concepts of what we were trying to do.”
Both coaches talked about the topsy-turvy nature of the final minutes.
“It was a heart-breaking loss and it was just one of those games in which someone had to lose,” King said. “It was hard to make that call, but if I had to make the call (on the field goal attempt) again right now, I’d do it again.”
“It was a wild game that all-star games are supposed to be,” McCloskey said. “Both teams were rusty, but I think we both played a clean game. I was proud of our guys the way they battled. We were able to get in a lot of guys and they all did well.”
With the win, the North snapped a six-game winless streak (5-0-1) in the series, which dates back to 1974. The North also improved its overall record to 25-19-1.
Leading tacklers in the game were all from the South because the North ran so many more offensive plays. Zaire was credited with six tackles and three deflected passes. He was Bob Mattos Defensive MVP, but that vote also went his way because he also stood out on offense, especially with a nine-yard TD run in the fourth quarter in addition to the TD run that was called back. Merced’s Dhameer Warren for the South had 10 tackles, one interception and two deflected passes. South teammate Jaquile Ingram (Modesto) also had 10 tackles and one interception.
While Stevenson was the MVP of the game, South quarterback Jonah Kosakiewicz (Turlock) was selected as the Les Ratzlaff Offensive MVP. He stood out with one touchdown run, one touchdown pass (which went on a 50-yard play to Trey Longstreth (Modesto Gregori) and generally dynamic play when he was running the offense. The past two MVPs of the game, Danny Velasquez and Jordan Porter, also were from Turlock.
In a vote among the players of the two teams, it also was announced after the game that the two most inspirational players were Clifford Johnson (Merced) for the South, and Vlad Sutherland (Mountain House) for the North.