Richard, Gardner lead North to Rotary All-Star football victory

sjansen@mercedsunstar.comJune 27, 2014 

Travante Richard knew Friday night would be the last time he’d be strapping on a helmet and pads.

The Merced High star is headed to Fresno City to play basketball.

Richard made one last memory as he caught a pass from Central Valley’s Kendel Johnson on the left sideline, shook out of tackle from a South defensive back and broke free for a 50-yard touchdown.

Richard’s score was the fourth second-quarter touchdown for the North, which went on to defeat the South 35-13 at the 29th annual North-South Rotary All-Star Football Game at Veterans Stadium in front of a crowd of 2,000.

“I had to get him off me,” Richard said. “I wanted to score. I finally got to touch the ball and I wanted to make the most of it.”

That was Richard’s approach all night knowing this was his final game. Richard was recruited to play football and basketball.

“It was a tough decision,” said Richard, who was named the Central California Conference MVP in both sports. “I just wanted to pick a program that most felt like family. Like we had at Merced High. I felt the basketball program at Fresno City really took me in and treated me well.”

The game ended with just over 5 minutes left on the clock after the second fight of the night broke out between the two teams.

After order was restored, there was a special moment as Hilmar’s Joseph Bello was allowed to score a 50-yard touchdown in his wheelchair as players from the South pushed him.

Bello was injured in February in an all-terrain vehicle accident. He fractured two vertebrae and was left without feeling from the chest down.

Even after the fight, both teams ran to the end zone to celebrate with Bello.

“It was amazing to be back on the field again tonight,” said Bello, who was named an honorary captain for the game. “I appreciate it. I was impressed with the sportsmanship, especially with the way the game just ended.

What started as a punting contest in the first quarter quickly turned into a rout as the North’s spread offense engineered by Merced head coach Rob Scheidt kicked into gear.

Central Valley star Ja’Quan Gardner showed why he rushed for 2,467 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Gardner touched the ball three times in the game and scored touchdowns every time.

His first score came on an 8-yard touchdown run untouched around the right side. His next touch came on a 54-yard touchdown pass from Turlock’s Sean Downs where Gardner went uncovered to give the North a 14-0 lead with 11:10 left in the second quarter.

“I don’t remember scoring easier touchdowns,” said Gardner, who added a 16-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. “They had communication problems. When the ball was in the air I was thinking just catch the ball. Don’t drop it.”

Merced’s Kris Turner-Jackson became the North 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.

Turner-Jackson broke free for a 36-yard run to jump-start the drive and added a 33-yard catch to move the ball to the 2-yard line.

“I love getting the ball,” Turner-Jackson said. “It’s fun playing with all of my teammates again and a lot of these other good players from around the league. But winning and scoring, that’s what I love to do.”

Richard’s touchdown came with just 53 seconds left in the second quarter to give the North a 28-0 lead heading into halftime.

“It’s a pretty simple game,” Scheidt said. “You’re playing zero coverage and everybody is manned up. At the start of the game there is a lot of energy and everyone is blitzing. As the game got faster, they 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.”

The North defense came away with four turnovers. Merced’s Mitchell Meyer and Mariposa’s Jarrett Williams recovered fumbles. Buhach Colony’s Kevin Walejko and Pacheco’s Adam Perez both intercepted passes.

The South managed to cut the lead to 28-13 early in the fourth quarter. Firebaugh quarterback Josh Allen scored on touchdown runs of 5 and 9 yards. Allen’s second score cut the lead to 13 points with 11:53 left.

Gardner’s final touchdown put the game out of reach.

With the North win, the South leads the all-time series 16-13.

Sun-Star staff writer Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or sjansen@mercedsunstar.com.

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