Mountain House High football coach Jason McCloskey went into the week leading up to the 46th annual Lions All Star Football Game pushing the mindset that his North team was due for a win.
After the North’s 19-18 win in the final minutes Saturday at Lincoln High’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium in Stockton, McCloskey reflected on how the game would be remembered by players in their final high school football experience.
“Either way it’s going to go down as a great game, and I’m just glad we did come out on top,” McCloskey said, adding that the game itself was just the highlight of a week of practice, workouts and team-building.
“They were really respectful to me all week and they really bought into what we were doing early. We showed up on Monday, I told them first and foremost that we were going to win this game, and they bought in from the get-go.”
Mountain House running back Vladik Sutherland, playing for the North team, was determined to make every moment on the field count, from scoring the game’s first touchdown to finishing as the Lions All Stars 2019 most inspirational player.
“I knew the energy was going to be super high since it was North vs. South, and North hasn’t got the W in the last six years, so I knew this year it had to change,” Sutherland said. “What I’ve done all four years, all the grinding, all the practices with my brothers, I knew I just had to put everything into — 110% with every play I played.”
It was the North’s first win since 2012. Historically, the North team is 26-18-2 in the series, which began in 1974, but the South team has won in five of the past six years, with the 2014 game a 21-21 tie.
Sutherland was one of five local players to guide the North team to victory. Tracy High’s Trevion Shadrick-Harris, playing defensive back for the North, said everyone on the team had to believe that the moment belonged to them.
“We had a high intensity level at practice,” he said. “We worked, we bonded over the week. We just knew we were all going to have to show up.”
Even though the high school season has been over for more than six months, most of the players are getting ready for college football. Shadrick-Harris said that there was effectively no break between seasons.
“We were all ready to come in and work,” he said. “Everybody worked out, these top-notch players. You don’t catch them sitting at home, laying on the coach, just eating up a bag of chips or anything. They’re going to be working in the off-season. Everybody was ready.”
Mountain House High’s Taeshaun Hodge-Maroney played defensive end and said the week of practice in the hot sun was worthwhile and watching the North offense move the ball was exciting.
“It was definitely a lot different from the season, because you’ve got a lot of players from all of the different schools from the South area, and it was pretty cool working with the stars from my area,” he said. “We were all just grinding hard and in the end we ended up taking that W.”
The South gained 414 yards of offense Saturday — 125 yards rushing and 289 yards passing between two quarterbacks. The North totaled 310 yards of offense with 120 yards rushing, including 39 yards on Sutherland’s seven carries. The North’s quarterbacks passed for a total of 190 yards, with Lincoln High’s Grant Stephenson, the game’s MVP, completing 12 of 21 passes for 165 yards, including four passes to Sutherland for 23 yards.
The North team scored first, but neither team held the advantage for long.
Sutherland scored on a 12-yard run to the left at the end of the North’s opening possession, a 13-play, 63-yard drive.
The South answered by covering 75 yards in six plays, including a 51-yard pass from Turlock’s Jonah Kosakiewicz to Gregori’s Marcello Longstreth, and Kosakiewicz ran the ball in from the 1-yard line to make it a 6-6 game.
The South was the only team to reach the red zone again in the first half, getting as close as the North 11-yard line late in the second quarter. That drive ended when the North’s Isaiah Franklin from Bear Creek High sacked South quarterback Xavier Rodriguez of Davis High for an 11-yard loss, and the game remained tied 6-6 at the half.
The South needed only two plays in the opening possession of the second half to take the lead, including a 62-yard catch-and-run, with Kosakiewicz completing the touchdown pass to Gregori’s Trey Longstreth. That put the South ahead 12-6 through the end of the third quarter.
The North tied it up again at the start of the fourth quarter, 12-12, on a 10-play, 80-yard, drive that included a 17-yard pass from Stephenson to Bear Creek’s Chaz Davis.
The South took the lead back with 4:17 left on the clock on a five-play, 63-yard drive, including a 41-yard pass from Rodriguez to Orestimba High’s Tyler Vargas and a 9-yard touchdown run for Modesto High’s Zaire Eugene.
The North came back right away, with Stephenson hitting Chavez High’s Rashard Stallworth on a 23-yard pass and then connecting with Weston Ranch High’s Fletcher Pitts Jr., who broke a tackle on the left side and ran 37 yards to the end zone, tying the score at 18-18. The North scored the extra point on Calaveras High’s John Arbuckle’s kick, the only successful conversion of the night, to make it a 19-18 game.
The South had 2:26 to try to score and charged down the field in five plays to get close enough for a 27-yard field goal attempt. Jordan Doyle of St. Mary’s High broke past the line to get a hand on the ball and deflect the kick, preserving the North’s slim lead.
Mountain House High’s Elias Escobar, playing defensive back for the North, said his team never let its guard down.
“It’s the all-star game, so you’re pumped up the whole time, especially being out here with these athletes, you can’t slack at all. Otherwise they’ll catch you for a big run or big pass,” he said, adding that nothing less than a big play at the end would have done the game justice.
“Man, we were pumped,” he said after the blocked kick. “I know you saw us dancing all with way down the sideline. That was crazy, especially in the fashion that we did it with the blocked field goal. That was clutch. We had energy the whole game, so it was fun.”
Tracy High’s Angelo Ortega, playing defensive end for the North, knew his all-star teammates would accept nothing less than maximum effort.
“It’s our last high school game, so we’ve got to come out and give the crowd a show. We had a good week of practice and it just all came together, and I’m glad we ended up with the victory,” he said, adding that the players from different schools bonded quickly. “Probably the funnest five days of my life, though. I’ll have relationships with all of these guys for the rest of my life. Really good guys, really good coaching staff. It was a great experience. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”