Shut out at the half, Danny Velasquez had one message for his South teammates: Be quiet and play.
“They were complaining about a bunch of little things,” the former Turlock High star said of the scene in the locker room at Wayne Schneider Stadium. “So I basically told them all to shut up. ‘Don’t pay attention to the North and we’ll win this game.’”
He was right.
In a game teeming with alpha males, each wanting to talk louder and sharper than the other, the South let its talent shine – not its tongue – down the stretch in a 30-17 victory in the 44th annual Central California Lions All-Star Football Game.
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Velasquez engineered four second-half touchdowns and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, Cullen Bearden of Oakdale and Devan Bass of Pitman hunted the football, and the South surged back from a 17-0 deficit with 30 unanswered points.
“Never give up, keep your mouth shut and things will come together,” South coach Dustin Caropreso of Los Banos said in his postgame huddle. “I’m very happy with the way you responded at halftime. Your represented yourselves, your teams and your communities the way you were supposed to.”
Trailing by three scores at the half, the South dusted off an old script, the one penned by the 2015 all-stars: Change QBs, inserting a do-everything, scramble-and-gamble playmaker; tighten the vise, defensively; and never lose hope.
In 2015, the South was boosted by former Modesto High quarterback Nate Phillips, who entered the game after Downey’s P.J. Wilson was injured late in the first half. By then, the North had taken control of the scoreboard.
Aided by the game’s 10-point rule, which allows a team trailing by 10 or more points to retain possession of the ball even after scores, the South seized momentum with 30 unanswered points and won the highest-scoring game in Lions history, 51-38.
The rivalry has never recovered. The South has won three straight games and closed the North’s advantage in the all-time series to 24-18-2.
This time around, the South turned to Velasquez, a two-time Central California Conference MVP.
“Put us on your back, Danny!” screamed South assistant Imoni Percoats.
Velasquez was 9 of 16 for 136 yards. He threw both of his touchdowns in a span of five plays early in the third quarter: a 26-yard strike to Chris Brown of Modesto Christian and then a 39-yard toss to Cadrian McDaniels of Golden Valley to make it 17-14.
Brown found himself wide open in the end zone after Cutrell Haywood slipped near the goal line.
Velasquez put the South ahead for good with a 35-yard touchdown run with 50 seconds left in the third quarter. He tacked on an 8-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter and finished with a game-high 122 yards on 10 carries.
Velasquez had 153 yards of offense in the third quarter alone and connected on five of his six passes.
“I had to get used to the game. That’s all it was,” Velasquez said. “I want those big moments. I want the coach to say, ‘Hey, Danny, here’s the ball. Go get it.’ That’s what I live for.”
He wasn’t alone.
Bearden went home with so much hardware he had trouble hanging onto it after the game.
The former Oakdale High linebacker was named the Best Defensive Player and the South’s Most Inspirational Player after collecting five sacks, forcing one fumble and sealing the win with a safety.
Before the game, Bearden trembled with anticipation. He sat in solitude on the bench, his stare burning a hole into the turf, his fists clenched.
The soon-to-be Modesto Junior College Pirate treated this game like a Friday evening at The Corral. He even channeled the teachings of Oakdale coach Trent Merzon.
“Every time I stepped onto the field, Merzon would say you gotta give it 100 percent. I gave every ounce of me tonight, even in the fourth quarter,” Bearden said. “I’ve got nothing life. I gave it everything I had – and I’ve got to give that to Merzon. He taught me that.”
Bearden also credited Merced defensive end and camp roommate John Becerra (sack) for commanding a double team, allowing Bearden to chase down North quarterbacks Jake Dunniway of St. Mary’s and Jack Weaver of East Union.
“I missed a lot of sacks, too,” Bearden said. “I got five, but I missed a lot of opportunities out there. I give it all to Jon, taking on the double team all night.”
The South turned up the defensive pressure in the fourth, harassing Dunniway, the Rams’ record-setting quarterback.
After completing his first four passes, including touchdowns of 9 and 48 yards to Best Offensive Player Cutrell Haywood, Dunniway was 4 of 11 in the second half. Pitman’s Devan Bass intercepted Dunniway twice, and Hilmar’s Joey Pereira and Bearden brought him down in the end zone to make it 30-17 with 2:05 remaining.
Delhi’s Jesse Flores and Modesto Christian’s Joseph Yanez recovered fumbles as the South forced four turnovers.
“One of the big advantages is we quit talking and played our game,” Bearden said. “We made plays and played hard, and didn’t buy into what they were doing.”