Fred Claussen and Tom Relles eyed the crowd in the Dante Club banquet room last week and let out a collective sigh of relief.
It was packed, with barely enough elbow room to draw up plays and formations on napkins.
Several of those in attendance suggested the teams playing in Saturday's Optimist All-Star Football Classic should get things going in the parking lot to relieve pent-up anticipation, but Claussen and Relles, the longtime directors of the game, chose a calmer route.
"We haven't had a crowd like this in many years," said Relles, whose family-run Camp Ross Relles for children with special needs is the beneficiary of proceeds from the game. "It's good to see that people realize how important it is."
The 56th annual game, a summer fixture since its inception, will kick off at noon at Del Oro High School with seniors from the North against the South. The Bee is the game's primary sponsor.
The game was switched from summer to the end of the football season for two reasons. First, it caps the high school football season, one week after the CIF State Bowl Championships. Second, a winter format allows the top players to participate.
In the past 10 years, most scholarship players declined Optimist invitations because their college coaches frowned on them playing and possibly being injured. Since national letter-of-intent day isn't until February, the decision is up to the players. In other words, they're not the property of a university yet.
That means players such as Placer's Eddie Vanderdoes will play their final high school game on Saturday. Vanderdoes, a nationally recruited defensive tackle, couldn't attend the Optimist banquet, sending a note of apology that he had a home visit with Notre Dame coaches. He also is considering USC, UCLA and Washington.
Vanderdoes will play for the North, along with Placer defensive end Stone Sander (Sacramento State), Nevada Union linebacker Tanner Vallejo (Boise State), Antelope defensive back Tyler Winston (San Jose State), Del Oro tailback Brandon Monroe (San Jose State) and Rio Americano tight end Jordan Vinson (Sac State).
At least five other North players are expected to sign with colleges: wide receiver-safety Trayvon Henderson (Grant) and linemen Garrett Strohmaier (Jesuit), Daren Echeveria (Antelope), A.J. Samataua (Del Campo) and Dedric Allen (Inderkum).
The South roster includes Pleasant Grove running back Isaiah Saunders (Idaho) and lineman Nick Terry (Boise State), Cosumnes Oaks lineman Kyle Saxelid (UNLV) and Christian Brothers lineman Vincent Johnson (Iowa State). Other South players being recruited include Oak Ridge quarterback Jason Samuels and CBS wide receiver-defensive back Jalen Walker.
"The Optimist game is special," said Del Oro's Casey Taylor, who along with Mike Alberghini and Reggie Harris of Grant will coach the North squad. "I know it was big in my life. I played in it in 1988 (while at Oak Ridge) and coached it, too. People who played in the Optimist game still talk about those games."
New game Saturday's inaugural All-City Football Classic, sponsored by SureWest Sports, will feature players from Divisions IV-VI. Also at Del Oro High, the game starts at 5 p.m.
North coaches Scott Savoie and Terry Logue of Bear River will feature Placer stars in linebacker Tony Suverkropp and running backs Isaac Brahce and Mike Robinson. The South, headed by Brad Rickert of Bradshaw Christian, will include running backs D'Juan Bellaire of Center (2,214 yards, 29 touchdowns), Quinton Kirk of Capital Christian (1,783 and 27) and Sean Tow of Union Mine (1,239, 12).