When it was over, everyone was smiling, and relieved.
A high school football season for the ages officially came to a close on a picture-perfect day as senior stars throughout the region competed one last time before tackling the great unknown of the college life.
The South beat the North 40-12 behind a three-touchdown burst in the fourth quarter in The Sacramento Bee’s 58th Optimist All-Star Classic on Saturday afternoon at Prairie City Stadium in Folsom.
But really, there were no losers here. Everyone benefited from the experience as one-time rivals became fast friends and teammates. Players who had read about one another, and seen each other from afar through highlight clips or media accounts, got a chance to compete alongside or against one another.
“You get to know guys you only knew about, and that’s what made it such a great experience,” said South quarterback Chris Guillen of Christian Brothers. “It was so much fun.”
The week started for the South with a visit to the Sacramento Shriners Children’s Hospital, 40 athletes parading into the lobby to greet scores of wide-eyed youngsters whose spirits were lifted by the selfless nature of the teenagers. The players handed out gifts and posed for photos.
“To see those faces, that made it such a great experience,” Guillen said. “We felt like celebrities, but those kids were the stars.”
The South was coached by Mike Johnson of Franklin, and he gleefully plucked star players from chief rival Elk Grove, including Eltoro Allen, Shaunard Harts, Sai Ta’amu, Spence Sheff and Manny Scott-Anderson. From Monterey Trail, Johnson grabbed the Sac-Joaquin Section’s leading rusher in 2014, Trey Nahhas, who rumbled in for two 1-yard touchdowns and recovered a fumble in earning South MVP honors.
“When you play against some of these guys,” Nahhas said, “they’re like the enemy, but really, they’re not. You come to realize, ‘They’re not so bad!’ All great guys.”
All-Star games are generally a crash course on schemes and concepts, to figure out special-teams plays and snap counts. The play Saturday was at times sloppy with blocked kicks and six North turnovers, but the effort was genuine.
The players competed as if this meant something, and it did.
“It’s a different offense than I’m used to and we’re trying to get to know each other, but you just play like you always do,” Nahhas said.
Coaches and athletes were anxious, too.
“I couldn’t even sleep last night, worrying about this game,” said Johnson, the South coach. “I barely ate. The kids were the same way, nervous. You want to do well.
“I loved it. There was a lot of respect both ways in this game and that was great. And we got to highlight some great players.”
From the start, the stars sparkled. North MVP Larry Hardy of Inderkum opened the scoring with a dazzling 64-yard fumble return in the second quarter off a jarring hit, the ball popping into the air. Moments later, the South took a 7-6 lead when Matt Jimison of Vista del Lago hit Daniel Tveretinov of Rosemont for an 80-yard bomb.
The North reclaimed the lead for the last time 12-7 when Clark Pietromonaco of Placer found Xavier Cox of Grant for a 42-yard touchdown. Nahhas scored back-to-back short touchdowns, and Bailey Laolagi of Folsom made it 27-12 with a 3-yard score.
Laolagi unofficially capped a 17-0 season. Sixteen of those games were with the Folsom Bulldogs, en route to a CIF State Division I championship romp, and the 17th was this charity event, the linebacker/running back finding enough energy in his legs to leg out one more contest.
“So glad I did this,” said Laolagi, who was joined on the South team by Folsom linebacker pal Tyler Crandall.
The South finished with two dazzling touchdowns, delivered by best friends and Sacramento High leaders Lonny Powell and Kyron Basped.
Powell, a powerfully built running back/linebacker headed to Cal on scholarship, weaved his way through a sea of defenders for a 55-yard touchdown run, and Basped, the San Jose State-bound receiver/defensive back, raced 64 yards into the end zone on an interception, his second pick of the day.
Nahhas rushed for 47 yards and Powell 61 to lead the South. TieNeal Martin of Grant had 55 yards to pace the North. Ta’amu had two sacks and recovered a fumble that led to a Nahhas scoring plunge. Nahhas also had the key block to lead the way for Laolagi on his TD effort.
“You know what this was,” Johnson said in speaking for one and all.
“It was fun. A lot of fun.”