Lions game: June 15, 7 p.m. at Modesto Junior College
The chosen Sonora, Calaveras and Summerville seniors will join 20 other players from Sac-Joaquin Section high schools across all divisions to represent the North. Buchach Colony head coach Kevin Smartwood will guide 30 more players on the South team.
A North team roster released Monday night included Calaveras Redskins Zack Johnson, Joe Elliott and Brian Golston; Sonora Wildcats Brandon Camara, Walter Leyva and Jessey Ahrenholtz; and Summerville Bear Darren Vallelunga.
“I’ve known about (the Lions All-Star Football Classic) since joining the varsity squad my sophomore year,” Vallelunga said. “It’s been one of my goals to make the team and it was a big relief when I found out that I did. I’ve been working hard for it and still am.”
Players in each Lions All-Star game are the most recent graduates of that year and are selected from high schools located within the eight county Central California area that make up Lions District 4A-1, which includes Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.
The football game was created as a fundraiser for the district and to give seniors a stage to display their talents after graduation. A portion of proceeds from the event are retained by Lions clubs for distribution in their respective communities.
To earn a spot on the team, players must first be nominated by their head football coach with the final selections made by a committee of coaches who review game films provided by each school. The top-rated nominees are then invited to play in the game.
“You get to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet and test yourself against some of the best kids in the Sac-Joaquin Section,” said Summerville head coach Ben Watson, who also played in the prestigious game after graduating from Sonora High.
With only the absolute best in the Section being selected to participate, Watson said Vallelunga, the 2012 Mother Lode League Lineman of the Year, was a good choice.
“He’s strong, agile and quick and did some really good things for us on the defensive line for three years,” Watson said. “He just got better each year and became a force to be reckoned with as a lineman.”
Vallelunga said he’s excited to have the opportunity to play alongside some players he highly respects but has always played against, such as Sonora’s Camara.
“I’ve always seen him in the newspapers and wanted to meet him so I look forward to playing with him,” Vallelunga said.
Both Camara and Vallelunga made the Union Democrat 2012 All-Area First Team for their impressive efforts during the 2012 seasons.
“(Camara) had an injury his freshman year but bounced back better than ever,” Ahrenholtz said of his teammate’s high school football career.
Ahrenholtz will join Vallelunga on the line and said he’s already begun preparing for the game in two months.
“I got the news I had made the team from Coach Weatherby and it was kind of a dream come true because that was one of my goals as a Sonora High School football player,” Ahrenholtz said.
Ahrenholtz will also be joined on the line by fellow Wildcat and All-VOL First Team guard Leyva.
“He’s just a high tempo guard and gets after it every play,” Ahrenholtz said of Leyva.
Weatherby’s Redskins also have three representatives selected to play including quarterback Zack Johnson.
Coincidentally, only one letter separates the name of Calaveras’ Johnson from Kimball’s Zach Johnson and the two will likely be splitting time at quarterback for the North, according to the Redskin senior.
“This really is kind of the pinnacle of my high school football career,” Johnson said. “I had a very good season this year. I broke the school record with 23 touchdowns (on the season), was named MLL Offensive Player of the Year and then — to top it all off — got selected to play in the Lions All-Star game. That means not only does my league recognize me but also the entire Section.”
And the fact that he will be playing under his head football coach of the past several years makes it all “even sweeter,” Johnson added.
“I’ve grown up under Coach Weatherby and also look to him for advice almost like a father figure,”Johnson said. “So it just puts the cherry on top of all this.”
Johnson said he’ll be using the game as a “nice refresher” before heading off to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis on June 25, where he hopes to play football at the next level.
Johnson noted that his Redskin teammate Elliott deserves to represent the North as well because of his relentless work ethic.
“Joe Elliott is the hardest working kid I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “He deserves to be on this team because he just outworks everybody.”
Elliott said he’s wanted the chance to play in the Lions game ever since former Redskin safety Monti Wilson did in 2011 and was named MVP of that game.
He called Johnson a “calm, quiet leader” who works hard. Elliott is also excited to play with teammate Golston one last time.
“Brian’s always been known as a character,” Elliott said of the tight-end Golston. “He’s tough, works hard and is good to have on any team.”
In addition to the elevated level of competition, Elliott said he can’t wait to play on the same team some of the other athletes from area high schools who usually line up on the opposite side.
“I’m looking forward to playing with them and hopefully we represent our area well,” Elliott said.