STOCKTON -- STOCKTON — Los Banos' Max Ornelas produced the punch and Mariposa's Cody Wichmann provided the power for the South at Saturday’s 37th Lions All-Star Classic.
Ornelas' smash-and-grab 59-yard TD play gave his team the early lead, and Wichmann's powerful thrusts into the backfield kept the North’s potent offense in disarray much of the night.
A fumble by Atwater quarterback Nathan Sanchez late in the fourth quarter, however, gave the North the opportunity it needed to score a late touchdown and two-point conversion for a 15-14 victory in one of the state’s oldest all-star football games.
With Sanchez struggling for a first down that could have sealed a South win, Escalon linebacker NickLargent reached in and knocked the ball loose.
Never miss a local story.
The North pounced on it with 4:28 to play, and that was plenty of time for St. Mary's quarterback Marcus McDade to rally the North to a 15-14 victory.
The quarterback drove the North 71 yards in 2:11, needing only eight plays. He hooked up with Lincoln's Jamal Campbell for plays of 26 and 28 yards -- hitting him on the sideline for the first, and then catching him on a crossing pattern to take the ball to the South 18.
Trailing 14-7, Stagg's Ty Minkin ran it in from the 5 to make it a one-point game. McDade then found Sierra's Anthony Hall in the right flat, flipping the ball to him as Hall crossed the goal line for a two-point conversion and the win.
It was fitting that Largent and the defense got the ball back for the offense, because the defense had kept the game close while the offense sputtered.
The Largent-led defense shut out the South during the final three quarters, stacking the middle with players in a bid to slow the South running game.
"We didn't make many adjustments during the game, we just started playing with more intensity," Largent said. "We knew they would be big and that they were going to be running the ball."
South coach Roger Canepa of Central Catholic had promised his team would use its power running game to try and keep the North's fast playmakers off the field, and the strategy was working.
Lining up in an I-formation, with Modesto's James Ingram behind Oakdale's Tim House, the South used a variety of runs and short passes to gain 107 yards in the first half.
A 12-play, 40-yard drive set the tone for the South, though it didn't produce any points.
The South got the ball back as Mariposa's Cody Wichmann -- the official Defensive Player of the Game with 3½ sacks and six tackles -- sacked Marcus McDade on third down and pressure forced McDade into an incompletion on fourth.
"We had a lot of defensive ends on our team, and most of them were coming from large schools, so I got moved inside," said Wichmann, whose rural school is in the remote southeast corner of the Stanislaus District. "Because I wasn't familiar with the position, I was just using my size and strength to get the sacks."
That gave the South the ball at its 43. Ingram burst up the middle on second-and-2 from the 46, following House for a few steps before stepping out to the left side and taking off.
Ingram was caught at the 3, and on third down Sanchez came in at quarterback and scored on a 2-yard keeper behind Merced tackle Taj Brown and Buhach Colony guard Justin Carter.
It didn't take long for the North to tie it, going 77 yards in 11 plays. McDade connected with his receivers on short plays, as Lincoln's 6-foot Jamal Campbell exploited a size advantage to beat Central Valley's 5-7 Vince Lopez.
On third-and-10 from its 35, McDade hit Campbell for 11 yards and a facemask added five more yards. He capped the drive with a 12-yard toss to Tracy's Depray Celestine -- a tailback playing the slot.
McDade was the game's official MVP after completing 16 of 24 for 317 yards. Those numbers would have thrilled Fresno State coach Pat Hill a few months ago, when McDade was still heading to Fresno.
McDade's academic struggles, however, have him going to a prep school in the fall in a bid to become eligible.
While his toss tied the game at 7, it didn't stay that way for long, as the South needed just two plays to get a touchdown.
On the first play after the kickoff, Modesto Christian's Kevin Roya slipped a defender at the line and picked up 26 yards to the South 41. With the South showing its power look, the North came up close to the line -- and Canepa surprised them with a throw.
Los Banos' Max Ornelas, on a quick look-in pattern, got a step on his defender. Central Catholic's Dylan Swartz hit Ornelas at the North 40 -- and the receiver stayed a step ahead of the defense the rest of the way for the 14-7 lead.
"Coach saw them playing man defense on the last possession, so he called a quick slant," Ornales said. "I shook the defender with a double move and the quarterback put it right into my chest.
"Once I had that ball, I just turned and started running."
The South had a chance for another score, getting to the North 35 with 1:45 left in the half on a 21-yard catch by Enochs' Donnavan Johnson. Split wide, he caught the ball over his inside shoulder.
The drive stalled as Swartz was sacked on two of the next three plays, keeping the score at 14-7 going into halftime.
The South couldn't maintain its momentum in the second half, though, and had just one drive of consequence. It took over on its 19 with 10:20 to play and rolled off 12 plays before Largent forced the ball loose from Sanchez.
Ingram's 11-yard run on first-and-10 from the South 43 -- a play set up by the blocking of Oakdale tackle Tim Barnard and Atwater guard Chris Hogue -- moved the ball across midfield halfway through the fourth quarter.
The South had a first-and-10 at the North 32, and runs by House and Sjelin picked up a yard each. That brought up third-and-8, and Sanchez came in to play QB for what was clearly going to be a run. He went to the right, and was forced to keep the ball as a North defender got between Sanchez and his pitch man.
That was all the opportunity Largent needed to reach in with one of his big paws and knock the ball into the air.