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Lions of the grid: Strong foothills contingent preps for all-star game

STOCKTON — The largest class of local gridders selected to play in the annual Central California Lions All-Star Football Classic in recent memory practiced Wednesday at Stagg High in preparation for the 40th edition of the big game this weekend at Modesto Junior College.

“I haven’t done this for awhile so it feels really good to put on the pads again,” said Summerville’s Darren Vallelunga, who helped the Bears reach the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV Championships last year.

Calaveras Redskins Zack Johnson, Joe Elliott and Brian Golston; Sonora Wildcats Brandon Camara, Walter Leyva and Jessey Ahrenholtz; and 2012 Union Democrat All-Area MVP Tanner Krieg, of Summerville, will join Vallelunga on the North team, which includes another 23 players from high schools throughout District 4A-1 of Lions International.

Calaveras head coach Jason Weatherby, whose Redskins have been in the playoffs in all five seasons he’s been in charge, will guide the North team. He brought his entire coaching staff along with Amador’s defensive coaches for the Lions All-Star game.

Buhach Colony’s Kevin Smartwood is in charge of the South. 

“Our coaches believe in a lot of what our kids can do and know they can play,” Weatherby said of the strong foothills contingent. “They’re country-tough kids who go hard all the time and I think that’s probably why a lot of them were selected this year.”

All eight local players were present at Wednesday’s practice and have lived with the rest of the team since Monday in dorms at the nearby University of Pacific.

Players will stay at the dorms through the rest of the week and are reporting twice per day to Stagg for practice from 9 to 11 a.m. and from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Weatherby said one of the reasons for having the team live together in the week leading up to the game is to help forge team unity in a short amount of time.

“If they have to live together they will hopefully start developing friendships and bonds that will make them want to play harder for each other on Saturday night,” said Weatherby, the Calaveras grad, who was the 1983 Lions game Most Valuable Player. “It also kind of recreates the experience of playing for a Division I school — going into the dorms for the first few weeks, having double days, meetings ... It gives them that big-time type of feeling.”

Calaveras quarterback Zack Johnson, who will be splitting time on Saturday with his namesake, Kimball quarterback Zack Johnson, said he has enjoyed getting to practice alongside former competitors and meet players he’s only heard about. 

“It’s just really nice to get to know all these people,” he said. “You read about them in the paper and watch them on the field but now you get see a totally different side of them when you’re on the same team.”

The experience also provides a unique opportunity for some of the local athletes to interact with others who come from different areas and backgrounds.

“It’s definitely a little more country up in Sonora I’d say, so there’s a different vibe from some of the kids who grew up around Stockton,” said Wildcat lineman Jessey Ahrenholtz.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Summerville’s Tanner Krieg said of living in the dorms for the week. “But it’s a lot different being on a team filled with all stars. Everybody’s talented and can be a starter. It’s definitely been an eye-opener for college.”

Krieg had “no idea yet” as to what his exact role will be Saturday, but Weatherby said the Summerville star who broke the school’s single-season rushing record last year would likely be filling in the line and could possibly see a handoff or two.

2011 Union Democrat All-Area Co-MVP Brandon Camara is planning to play football for Modesto Junior College in the fall and would like to eventually transfer to a local Division I or II college within a couple years.

He said the Lions All-Star experience has given him the chance to see what it’s like to be surrounded by like-minded athletes who are all striving for success at the next level, which is what he anticipates it will be like playing in college.

“We’re all looking to win on Saturday,” Camara said. “Just show off our talents and go home with a win.”

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