If Friday night was indeed A.J. Stewart’s last football game, the Merced High School star went out in style.
Stewart hauled in three touchdown passes and finished with 162 yards on four receptions to lead the North to a 29-7 win over the South in the 31st annual North/South Rotary All-Star Football Classic in front of about 2,000 people at Veterans Stadium.
Stewart, who is headed to Merced College next year to play basketball, put on a show. Can he really walk away after shining in a showcase of talent like this?
“I don’t know now,” Stewart joked.
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He opened the scoring with 11:24 left in the first quarter as Atwater quarterback Frank Cocio tossed a deep 40-yard touchdown pass to Stewart, who outjumped a defender for the score.
The South answered as Chowchilla’s Anthony Stewart (66 yards on 12 carries) broke free for a 34-yard run but stumbled in the open and fell at the 5-yard line.
Three plays later, Sanger quarterback Michael Castillo lobbed a fade pass to Clovis’ Coltin Velasquez in the corner of the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown to pull the South even with 6:59 left in the first quarter.
Both defenses dominated the rest of the first half, which was plagued by turnovers. The South turned over the ball three times in the first half, including an interception by Central Valley’s Moses Ghiorso that set up the North at the South 42-yard line early in the second quarter.
On the next play, Gustine’s Brandon LaBry broke free for a 42-yard touchdown run that gave the North a 13-7 lead with 8:34 left in the first half.
“It was power left, and I saw I had two lead blockers,” said LaBry, who rushed for 101 yards on 10 carries. “One of them took the extra linebacker, and the other took on the safety. I bounced outside and ran down the sideline. I had one guy left, and I pushed him down and got the touchdown.”
The North recorded five sacks, including three by Stone Ridge Christian sack specialist Mark Hooker. The Knights star racked up 32 sacks last fall, second in the nation.
“This was really fun,” Hooker said. “I had a great time playing. It’s a lot easier to put in a defense in one week than an offense. We basically just get out there and go after the ball.”
The North broke the game open by outscoring the South 10-0 in the third quarter.
Cocio hooked up with A.J. Stewart again. This time, Stewart broke free on a slant for a 77-yard catch and run that gave the North a 20-7 lead with 6:13 remaining in the third quarter.
“I had been telling the coaches to try it out because of the way they were lining up against me,” Stewart said. “If I could beat my guy inside, he couldn’t stop me. As soon as I caught it, he fell. I knew I was going to score.”
Oakdale’s Lane Trapp, who didn’t practice all week because of a sprained ankle, kicked a 32-yard field goal to extend the lead to 23-7.
A.J. Stewart closed the scoring with an impressive touchdown. He bent down and caught a 31-yard pass from Orestimba quarterback Joe Sheldon at his shins behind a defender to give the North a 29-7 lead.
The game got chippy in the second half as players from each side had to be separated multiple times, but the teams shook hands after the game.
Cocio completed 7 of 17 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns.
The win was the third straight for the North, which leads the series 16-15.
“To be honest, this wasn’t even about the game,” A.J. Stewart said. “We became a family. I love these guys. We’re all good players. We have the same personality. We all want to win. We all fight. We’re all competitive. None of us quit. This game was a lot of fun.”
31st annual North/South Rotary All-Star Football Classic
North 29, South 7
N – A.J. Stewart 40 pass from Frank Cocio (Lane Trapp kick)
S – Coltin Velasquez 8 pass from Michael Castillo (Evan Rios kick)
N – Brandon LaBry 42 run (kick failed)
N – Stewart 77 pass from Cocio (Trapp kick)
N – Trapp 32 FG
N – Stewart 31 pass from Joe Sheldon (kick failed)