LEXINGTON — When the best of the best face off, big things usually happen — big hits, big runs and big plays.
Saturday in the 2009 North Central Ohio Football Coaches Association North South All-Star Classic, a large crowd was treated to all those big things — and more.
The McDonald’s South team and Buckeye Superstore’s North team slugged it out for 48 full minutes before a winner was finally determined. The North squad scored on the final play of the game to pull out an exciting 20-19 victory in the all-star game at Lexington High School.
“It was great. You’re playing with the best of the best in the area,” said Fredericktown’s Gary Gregg, a member of the South squad. “Some of the guys, you’d watch in the playoffs and say, ‘Man, they’re good.’ Then you play with them and realized they are really good. It was really awesome to play with some of the best in the area.
“I wasn’t surprised by the size. It was really the speed of the game which changed. Even though these are all high school kids, it was so much faster than our high school game.”
Along with Fredericktown, Danville, Clear Fork and Highland had recent graduates on the South squad. Gregg was joined by teammate Brennan Goeppinger, while Danville’s Gatlin Ridgway, Nash Helms and Adam Wood got to play in one final high school game. Clear Fork’s Drew Van Houten, Matt Davis, Jason Thomas and Jared Beans all played, as did Highland’s Lance Stambaugh, Steve Stooksbury and Keifer Hinkle.
“It was something else. This is the next step before the college level,” said Danville’s Ridgway. “Instead of just three or four good players on a team, all 11 were good. There was talent everywhere.”
Things didn’t start well for the South squad, as the North scored on a 53-yard run by Ashland’s Shane Kipp midway through the first quarter. The South had two touchdowns called back because of penalties in the first half, but were able to knot the game at 7 when Galion quarterback Alex Nicholls connected with Mansfield Senior’s Jacob Owen on a 28-yard scoring strike.
The North was able to retake the lead late in the half when Hillsdale’s Dustin Simpson scored from one yard out.
But the South had a little magic up its sleeve when Nicholls found Lexington’s Antonio Pickens on a 28-yard scoring strike on the last play of the half. The extra point kick was no good, though, and the North took a 14-13 lead into the locker room.
The South took the lead in the third quarter when Stambaugh connected with Ryan Hudson of Elgin on a 20-yard TD pass. They looked like they might ice it late in the game, but a 34-yard field goal just missed to the left.
The North final scoring drive included a 39-yard pass on a fourth-and-seven play. They then moved the ball to the 1-yard line before two penalties backed them up to the 11. Then, with just 4 seconds left, South Central’s Alex Uselton found Crestline’s Max Hartings in the left corner of the end zone for the final score.
“The coaches told us it would come down to the last couple of minutes. I don’t know if it can come any closer than that last play. That kid made an indescribable catch,” Gregg said.
Physical play was the norm throughout the game, but it got out of control following a nice run by Ridgway in the fourth quarter. He was taken down hard and his teammates came to the rescue. The emotions carried over to the next play as three players were thrown out of the game for fighting.
“It was a highly emotional game,” said Ridgway, who was named the game’s Outstanding Defensive Back. “Everybody was fired up. It happens.
“This was my last high school game, so I just played hard. I tried to make it interesting.”
Ridgway had plenty of inspiration for the game. His wristbands included a remembrance of his grandfather, who passed away two years ago, and he had pink cancer bands on in honor of an aunt who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
“My grandpa passed away at the end of my sophomore year. He was a big inspiration for me,” Ridgway said. “My aunt just found out she has breast cancer, so I played for her as well. Our family is close, so I figured I could do something for her.”
Two other area players were honored at the game. Gregg and Hinkle both received $1,000 scholarships during a halftime ceremony.
Also at halftime, Fredericktown’s Brandon Smith finished second in a kicking competition. He connected on field goal attempts from 35, 40, 45 and 50 yards before finally falling.
The game capped off an exciting week for the players, as they worked with new coaches and new teammates.
“It was like the easy practices of high school except it was 10 times more fun. There were some hitting and drills, but there were a ton of jokes,” Gregg said. “I made a ton of friends. All the guys, even those you don’t think you’d like because you beat them or they beat you, it didn’t matter. Everybody had fun.”