MODESTO - Nine of the Mother Lode's top football stars proved why they deserved the distinction by wreaking havoc on the gridiron Saturday night at Modesto Junior College.
Wildcats, Redskins and Bears alike swatted down passes, recovered fumbles and made clutch plays that kept the North team battling to the bitter end of a 17-14 loss to the South in the 40th annual Lions International All-Star Football Classic at Modesto Junior College.
"We both played hard," said Wildcat linebacker Brandon Camara, who played for the North. "Both teams had a ton of talent on the field and I think we showed that off pretty well."
Camara provided an early spark on defense when he batted away a fourth-down pass thrown by South quarterback Aaron Zwahlen, of Downey, on the game's opening drive to give the North possession at their own 31.
"I got so much adrenaline from that play," Camara said.
He used that boost to record six tackles in the game, including one with2:30left in a scoreless first half that stopped South running back Maury Moore at the 2-yard line to set up another fourth down.
On the next play, following a timeout, the South again handed it off, this time to Buhach Colony's Stephon Gold, who ran into a brick wall by the name of Summerville lineman Darren Vallelunga at the 1, giving possession back to the North.
"Our linemen really stepped it up," Camara said. "I always say we can't win games without our line showing up to play, and they did tonight."
The game remained scoreless at halftime until the South drew first blood in the third quarter.
North quarterback Zack Johnson, of Calaveras, started the game and alternated often with his Kimball namesake, who led the North in rushing with 78 yards on nine carries.
Calaveras' Zack Johnson started the third quarter at the North 20 with a beautiful pass to receiver Andrea Lindsey, who was streaking downfield around the 50 with no South defenders in front of him and only one struggling to catch up. But the Stagg graduate failed to haul it in and the drive ultimately resulted in the North punting.
After receiving the punt, the South started its first scoring drive on the North's 49. A 9-yard run and a 15-yard penalty later and the South was threatening at the 25.
An illegal formation penalty pushed the South back five yards. Two incomplete passes later, Zwahlen launched a long pass to Merced receiver Brad Adamson in the endzone for a 30-yard touchdown. Zwahlen converted the extra point for 7-0 lead at8:53in the third quarter.
Following the kickoff, the North drove 21 yards on its ensuing possession before giving the ball back to the South on a fumble at its own 41 with7:33.
The South marched downfield to the North 6 and Zwahlen ran it in after picking up a short-hop snap on third down. His kick was good to give the South a 14-0 lead with4:26in the quarter.
Calaveras' Zack Johnson started the North's nine-play, 75-yard retaliation drive but Kimball's Zack Johnson finished it. North fullback Joe Elliott, also of Calaveras, picked up a first down during the drive with an 8-yard run.
To put the North's first points on the board, Jaguar Johnson took the snap from the South 33 and ran it down the left sideline all the way to paydirt following fake handoff to fellow Jaguar Evan Owens.
"He (Johnson) is just an offensive threat," said Calaveras head coach Jason Weatherby, who led the North. "He gives off the aura that he wants to play hard and do what's best for the team."
"I knew he was going to be good and he definitely showed us why he deserved to be an all-star," Camara said of Johnson.
The North's extra point attempt failed, making it 14-6 with1:29left in the third.
In the final 12 minutes, North safety Osha Washington picked off a Zwahlen pass during the South's first possession and ran 65 yards down the sideline to the South 34. Unfortunately, the drive culminated in the North coughing up the ball to the South on a fumble.
After forcing a punt, the North got the ball back at the South 48 with less than five minutes remaining and quickly drove 22 yards on three consecutive running plays.
On the fourth play, Calaveras tight end Brian Golston caught a pass from Kimball's Zack Johnson that gained 17 yards, a first down and set up the North's second touchdown - a 9-yard quarterback sneak by Johnson with2:33left.
The catch by Golston was the longest made by a North receiver.
"I was supposed to go out on a post, but I saw (Johnson) scrambling and found a seam. I was just trying to make a play to get us in scoring position," Golston said.
Following the touchdown, Sierra running back Anthony Cota ran in the 2-point conversion to tie the game, 14-14.
With no chance at overtime if the score remained tied per Lions game rules, the South tried to quickly put together a scoring drive and appeared on their way until Zwhalen fumbled at the North 37 and Camara recovered to give possession back to the North with less than a minute on the clock.
"The quarterback fumbled and kicked the ball and it rolled out," Camara said. "The other team tried to roll on top of it and I fought for it at the bottom of the pile."
"He (Camara) is a tough, big kid," Weatherby said. "He's going to have a great career."
The North went four plays in their final drive that resulted in a loss of three yards, which gave possession back to the South at the 43 with 23 seconds left. Zwhalen then completed a 13-yard pass to bring the South to the 18. He kicked a 35-yard field goal through the uprights as the final seconds ran out to win the game and redeem his botched 24-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter.
"I probably would have punted on our last drive to put them back deeper had there been overtime," Weatherby said of how the special all-star game rules affected his play calling, adding that players on special teams were also not allowed to rush the kicker during field goal attempts.
Overall, Weatherby said he was proud of the effort put forth by one of the largest classes of foothill gridders to be selected to play in a Lions All-Star game, which included Johnson, Golston, Camara, Elliott, Sonora's Walter Leyva and Jessey Ahrenholtz, Vallelunga, Summerville's Tanner Krieg and Redskin Noah Shelgren, who started practicingThursdayto replace injured Argonaut lineman Daniel Lyle.
"The mountain kids proved they're tough and don't have any quit in them," Weatherby said.
Elliott said playing against a team filled with all-stars was much different than games against some Mother Lode League teams that weren't as stacked.
"There were just a lot of athletes on the field at once and there wasn't any one person you could focus on," he said.
Camara got to compete for the first time on the field where he plans to play next semester when he attends Modesto Junior College and said the experience made him feel more prepared.
Golston said living with the team at the University of Pacific dorms for the past week and practicing on the field at Stagg High "was a blast" and exposed him to different cultures and personalities.
"The first day we didn't even talk to each other and by the end we were all cracking jokes," he said. "Me and Camara used to hate each other but now we're new friends. He's a true defensive player."
Weatherby, who himself played in the Lions All-Star game after graduating in 1983 and was named that game's MVP, was pleased with the end result despite the difficult loss but admitted he's not going to miss the added behind-the-scenes responsibilities that come with coaching in it.
"It's a lot of work putting this whole week together," he said. "It's more of an every 5-to-10 years type-of-thing."