Justin Stefani is delicate and thoughtful with his helmet off.
The former Buhach Colony High School star carefully crafts each thought, handling each question during an interview with the softest of gloves.
Be warned: The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Stefani transforms when the helmet is lowered, revealing only his scowl to the opponent.
It can be quite scary. Ask the North, which was rolled by the South 51-38 in the 42nd annual Lions All-Star Football Game on Saturday night at Wayne Schneider Stadium.
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Stefani’s brute force with the ball or as a blocker helped pave the way for an emergency quarterback calling plays for the first time all week. Modesto’s Nate Phillips hadn’t taken a rep under center all week.
That job, he and the rest of the South All-Stars figured, belonged to P.J. Wilson, Downey’s dual-threat quarterback.
Then it happened: Wilson felt his left shoulder start to separate and had to be removed just before halftime.
Downey coach Jeremy Plaa turned to his emergency quarterback, hoping Phillips had some heroics left in his underrated right arm.
He had plenty.
With Phillips at the helm, the South scored 30 unanswered points in a record-setting, if not altogether surprising victory.
The South’s point total was the most ever, surpassing the 42 by the North in 2003.
Phillips was the runaway MVP. He was 12 for 20 for 116 yards and three touchdowns, including a 2-yard flip to Downey’s Jakob Magana for the go-ahead score with 6:46 remaining.
Phillips, the Modesto Metro Conference’s co-MVP, also had a team-high 72 rushing yards and sealed the win with an 18-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds remaining.
He’ll play safety next fall at Taylor University in Indiana, but many will remember him as the ill-prepared quarterback who aced the final without opening the book.
The North leads the all-time series 24-16-2, but has lost two of the last three to a Modesto Metro Conference quarterback. Hawaii freshman and former Downey star Aaron Zwahlen kicked a winning field goal in the final seconds of the 2013 game.
“I was nervous,” Phillips said, “and that had nothing to with what I believe I can do. It had everything to do with not wanting to let my teammates down. The bond we made this week was incredible. I felt like we were a family, and that’s a testament to how we finished this game.”
This type of finish wasn’t in the cards when the week began at Cal State Stanislaus.
Phillips was selected as a wide receiver and safety, but he was thrust into a starring role in Plaa’s spread offense after the injury to Wilson (12 for 21, 167 yards, two touchdowns).
Wilson was hurt on a trick play late in the first half. He threw to Phillips in the left flat and then drifted up the right sideline. Phillips stopped and threw back across the field to Wilson, who tried to hurdle a defender.
Plaa said Wilson, bound for Redlands in the fall, could feel his left shoulder separating before he was even touched.
“That was the one thing I worried about on the bus ride over. ‘Man, I hope P.J. makes it today,’ because he has some bad shoulders,” said Plaa, coaching in the game for the second time. “Nate hung his head on his first series in the first half, but you could see that on every drive he was picking up confidence.”
Wilson was pulled after the play and watched the rest of the game wearing a sling.
He was treated to quite a show. The South trailed 38-21 at halftime but realized it still was very much in the game.
For starters, the South was aided by the game’s nine-point rule, which states that if a team is trailing by nine or more points, it will retain possession of the ball even after a score.
The South also had Phillips, a charismatic leader and explosive playmaker. Plaa shrank his playbook to four base plays and equipped Phillips with two bulldozing running backs: Stefani and Oakdale’s Frankie Trent.
Stefani and Trent set the tone in the third quarter, softening the interior of the North defense with body blows.
“As a quarterback, it gets hard when you feel the pressure on you,” Phillips said. “You have to make the throws, the right runs and the right reads. But when you got two beasts like that in the backfield, it makes your job easier. I can sit back and watch those guys go to work.”
Their numbers weren’t overly impressive, especially when compared to North slashers Nate Jones of Tracy (six carries, 128 yards, two touchdowns) and Rashaad Cooper of Kimball (eight carries, 101 yards, one touchdown).
Jones was the Offensive Player of the Game but was limited to 9 yards on two carries in the second half.
Stefani and Trent weren’t named to the South roster to win a sprint. The twin 200-pounders were brought in to bludgeon and wear down defenders.
“They were in the background all week,” Plaa said. “We were trying to get this passing game down while they worked the run game. And it wasn’t bright and shiny during practice.
“In the game tonight, a lot of times they were making their own holes, breaking tackles and spinning for 6, 7, 8 more yards.”
Trent carried 13 times for 45 yards, and Stefani gained 66 yards on 10 attempts.
Stefani’s 1-yard dive capped the South’s nine-play statement to start the second half, trimming the deficit to 38-27.
“We knew we were more physical than we showed in the first half,” Stefani said. “We got after them and started doing what we do best: run downhill.”
While they occupied the defense, Phillips picked his spots, building confidence under center.
5 First downs converted by Buhach Colony running back Justin Stefani
He connected with Hughson’s Devondre Stendardo twice on the next drive, including a 12-yard strike that helped set up Sean Bingham’s 22-yard field goal to make it 38-30 with 5:19 remaining.
At long last, the North offense was set to return to the field.
With Jones and Cooper setting the pace early, the North appeared on its way to breaking its own record for points, but mighty mite Magana had other plans.
The Downey star fell on top of an onside kick to keep the ball in Phillips’ hands. Phillips went 3 for 3 on the drive and tied the score by threading a pass over the shoulder of Gregori’s Matt Vargas for a 15-yard score. He connected with Stendardo for a two-point conversion, knotting the game at 38s.
The South was rising and Phillips completed the takeover on its first possession of the fourth quarter.
He started the drive with a 19-yard bullet pass to Vargas at the North 35. Stefani carried 12 yards to the 23 and then set the edge for Phillips, who was pushed out at the 6.
Three plays later, Phillips lobbed a 2-yard pass to Magana that made it 45-38.
Smarting from its first-half follies, the defense capitalized on the momentum. Most Inspirational Player Alec Barcellos of Los Banos stood up Calaveras’ Connor Hamilton to force a punt and then tackled Sierra’s Hunter Johnson for a loss to force a punt on the next series.
Magana closed the game with an interception, his second of the game and 16th as a senior. He was named the Defensive Player of the Game.
As is often the case, the 5-foot-7, 150-pound Magana was the smallest player on the field.
“I’ve always been overlooked, especially being a shorter player, but I embrace it,” he said. “It helped me this season. It motivates me. I feed off that. I live off that.”