Eight players from three local schools—Turlock, Pitman and Hilmar—took to the field on Friday night for one last time to shine under the Friday Night Lights.
It was the last time that local football standouts would be able to strap on their helmets and pads to represent their respective high schools in a final North against South All-Star clash at Veterans’ Stadium in Merced.
Recent Merced High graduate Travante Richard was named the Most Valuable Player, and would score the games fourth second-quarter touchdown for the North as they went on to demolish the South in a 35-13 score at the 29th annual North-South Rotary All-Star Football Game in front of a crowd of 2,000.
“It’s an honor finally playing with these guys instead of against them and then playing against the other tough All-Star squad [South] it is just an honor to be able to be out here only one of a handful… it’s just an honor,” recent Turlock High graduate Jovan Hogan said.
Aaron Lusher, Logan Wolfley, Justin Van Fleet, Jovan Hogan, Sean Downs, Britten Smith, Devon Medeiros and Tyler Robinson were all the representatives from Pitman, Turlock and Hilmar. They were all part of the North team.
Joseph Bello of Hilmar, who was injured in February, was the honorary captain for the North team. There was a special moment in the game as Bello was allowed to score a 50-yard touchdown in his wheelchair as players from the South pushed him. At the end, both teams ran to the end zone to celebrate with Bello.
“It’s an amazing experience and just glad that we won as well. Wish I could do it again but this is my last high school game. I am a bit sad but just glad we got to do that for Joseph,” said Hilmar placekicker and Bellos’s teammate Devon Medeiros.
What began as a shaky defensive and special teams game in the first quarter, shifted quickly as the North’s spread offense, which was engineered and executed to perfection by North and Merced High head football coach Rob Scheidt, finally kicked into gear.
“At the start of the game there is a lot of energy and everyone is blitzing. As the game got faster,” Scheidt said. “They [South] lost our backs in some of our empty sets. We were able to hurt them there and we were able to mix in some of our inside zone.”
Central Valley and North star running back Ja’Quan Gardner showed why he rushed for 2,467 yards on the ground and 27 touchdowns as he touched the ball three times in the game and scored a touchdown every time.
His first score came on an eight-yard touchdown run and his next touch came on a 54-yard touchdown pass from Turlock’s Sean Downs where Gardner snuck his way into the backfield uncovered and gave the North a 14-0 lead with 11:10 left in the second quarter.
The offensive line was led by Pitman’s Aaron Lusher at left tackle and was a big reason why the Pitman offense was so successful on the ground throughout the season.
“It’s sad, crazy but also fun. Most of these guys were on the Lions team as well so we are able to play as a team because of that I think,” Lusher said. “We stayed together in our dorms for a while and we all got to hangout and stayed tight as a group since we couldn’t leave campus and it’s working for us.”
A 16-yard touchdown run later by Gardner in the fourth would tally him his third score of the game.
Merced’s Kris Turner-Jackson became the North’s workhorse out of the backfield later in the half. The Bears running back touched the ball eight times on an 82-yard scoring drive, including a 1-yard touchdown plunge that gave the North a 21-0 lead.
Richard’s touchdown came with just 53 seconds left in the second quarter to give the North a 28-0 lead heading into halftime.
The North’s defense came away with four turnovers as Wolfley, Hogan, Smith and Van Fleet were all huge contributors in nearly every play.
The South managed to cut the lead to 28-13 early in the fourth quarter but Gardner’s final touchdown put the game out of reach.
“When I take these pads off it will hit me that it’s over,” said Lusher.
“We bonded well like Lusher said. It is just the same 30 from the Lions team and the Merced coaching staff are a great coaching staff. They teach us well and we know it, so that all helped and we were able to dial it in,” Hogan added.
Hilmar’s Medeiros would finish the game going 5-for-5 in extra points as the recent Yellowjacket graduate awaits to play at the next level.
“It is amazing being able to play with my friends from school and I am just glad that I could do this like this one last time,” said Medeiros, who will be attending Sacramento State University in the fall to play football.
With the North win, the South leads the all-time series 16-13.