CLEARWATER — The players had so much fun, officials at Clearwater High School literally had to turn off the lights post-game to get everyone to go home.
With more than 60 talented and motivated seniors participating in Wednesday's 23rd annual Pinellas All-Star Football Classic, won by the North squad 27-0, a certain level of competitive fire was expected. But the county's best also got a chance to hit the gridiron, play ball and enjoy each other's company, which made for an entertaining evening for the 500 or so fans in attendance.
Impact play from special teams: Four sacks and three punts resulted from the North and South's first two possessions, but the North rode quality special-teams play to a commanding lead.
First a 12-yard punt return by Largo's Calvin Lockett set up an ice-breaking 35-yard field goal from Indian Rocks Christian's Carlos Rodriguez late in the first quarter.
After another three-and-out, Largo's Cameron Tisdale returned a South punt 38 yards to the 2 where East Lake's Breon Hillmon (47 rushing yards, game's offensive MVP) followed a crushing block from Calvary Christian lineman Alex Kurleman (best offensive lineman of the night) into the end zone.
Strong defense from Osceola's Jorge Diaz and Dunedin's Quion Burgess forced another three-and-out, with East Lake's Josh Bowers sprinting 41 yards with the South punt to the 20, setting up a 6-yard sweep to paydirt by Tarpon Springs quarterback Justice Parham for an insurmountable 17-0 lead five minutes into the second quarter.
"It was a great opportunity playing in this game," said Parham, who added a 21-yard TD pass to Countryside's Cardre Mobley with 22 seconds left in the game. "It's definitely great to go out and get a win in my last high school game."
Sacks a lot: The South squad struggled to sustain any offense, registering just 138 total yards. The North defense rang up five sacks as Clearwater Central Catholic's Matt Tauber (defensive MVP), Palm Harbor University's Brendon Thomas, Calvary's Jaque Sarnoff, Largo's Logan Doublin and Largo's DJ Bullard (best defensive lineman) tracked down the South's QBs.
"It was pretty competitive," said Tauber. "With so many athletes out there, it was easy to go out there and fly around. We were always giving 100."
An MVP night: In addition to his long punt return, Bowers added an athletic interception in the back of his end zone to crush a late first-half South scoring threat, earning overall game MVP honors in the process.
"I was a running back in youth ball and it gave me good field vision," Bowers said. "(On the punt return,) I saw the blocks develop and God gave me the speed to get through. (On the interception,) I read the quarterback, saw his eyes, opened up my hips and went to the ball."
Standouts in defeat: The South squad was led by quarterback Trevor Burke of Dixie Hollins (6 of 20, 75 yards) and St. Petersburg receiver/defensive back Anthony Johnson (five catches for 63 yards, interception). Gibbs' Anthony Bingham added a pair of sacks on the night.