The 40th Lions All-Star Football Game was decided on the last play by a field goal, yet South coach Kevin Swartwood was conflicted.
“The North can’t rush the kick (by all-star rules). There’s no pressure. We either win or it’s a tie, which isn’t the worst result in an all-star game,” said Swartwood, the Buhach Colony coach. “But inside, I’m thinking, ‘Please make it.’”
Swartwood’s wish was granted when Downey High quarterback Aaron Zwahlen, the game’s MVP, spun home a 35-yard field goal from the hold of Merced’s David Keys as time expired. The South all-stars rushed onto the field to celebrate a thrilling 17-14 victory, the first win by the South in four years and only its second in the last decade.
About 2,500 at Modesto Junior College Stadium watched a thoroughly entertaining game dominated by the South on the stat sheet but not on the scoreboard. The 6-foot-3 Zwahlen dazzled from start to finish by completing 18 of 32 passes for 286 yards, rushed and passed for touchdowns and accounted for every South point with either his arm or his foot.
Hawaii, Zwahlen’s destination after a two-year church mission, can only hope he’ll impress as a collegian as much as he did in the Lions game. Simply, he was the best player from start to finish.
“We had Aaron. They didn’t,” Swartwood praised. “What a pleasure to coach. He’s that good. I wish we had more pass concepts for him, but we ran out of time this week.”
The game was close only because the South failed to cash in a take-charge first half. Though Zwahlen escorted his team up and down the field, the South and the North trudged into the locker room scoreless. Incredibly, the South built advantages of 277-16 in total yards and 9-2 in first downs during the first two quarters. The North defense scrapped hard, however, and twice held the South inside the 2 yard line. Zwahlen also missed a 24-yard field goal.
“Hats off to them. They stopped us three times,” Swartwood said.
The South finally broke through with two third-quarter touchdowns. The first was Zwahlen’s 30-yard bullet to Merced’s Brad Adamson, who made a good catch in the end zone while defender Gary Norwood climbed his back.
“It was an open field to the inside,” Adamson said. “He (Zwahlen) led me to the open grass.”
The South’s second touchdown was a Zwahlen improv, a wheeling 6-yard keeper to his left after he bobbled the snap from center.
The North responded to its 14-0 deficit. Its offense was orchestrated by two quarterbacks named Zack Johnson, but it was Kimball’s Zack Johnson who finally supplied some traction with his legs.
His 33-yard rip on fourth down put his team on the scoreboard and, with 2:33 left, he dashed up the middle 9 yards and dove into the end zone. Anthony Cotta easily scampered home for the tying conversion.
The game’s climax was fascinating. Zwahlen fumbled near midfield with 48 seconds left and opened the door for a North victory, but it didn’t capitalize.
North coach Jason Weatherby of Calaveras deserved credit, however, for not settling for an all-star tie. Rather than punt on fourth down from the North 41, he gave his offense one more play. A screen pass was dropped, giving the South a shot with 23 seconds left.
Zwahlen quickly hit Atwater tight end Matt Parker (3 catches, 90 yards) for a 23-yard gain to the 18 to set up the winning kick.
“I thought they were going to punt, but they went for the win. I respect them for that,” Swartwood said. “He (Weatherby) showed a lot of class.”
Parker shined with one of the game’s most athletic plays, a leaping catch in traffic for a 44-yard gain during the first half. He stretched his fingertips for the reception over defender Ryan King and nearly pounded in for the touchdown, though the South eventually walked away scoreless.
Buhach Colony’s Tyler Dew rushed five times for 13 yards and also caught a pass for 12 yards. Los Banos star James Sams carried three times for 15 yards. The South outgained the North 414-197.
The teams knelt together at game’s end as the awards were announced. The South’s Hondo Arpoika of Oakdale was named the defense MVP and Kimball’s Johnson received the North’s MVP honor. The coaches recognized their most inspirational players before kickoff — the injured Daniel Lyle of Argonaut for the North and Arpoika for the South.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter @modbeesports