Trailing by 17 points as the fourth quarter arrived in the Orange County All-Star Classic, the outlook for the South could not have been bleaker on Saturday.
With a thrilling comeback spurred by a series of critical turnovers, the South turned a likely blowout into an improbable 30-27 come-from-behind win against the North at Orange Coast College that these high school seniors will not soon forget.
The game-winning score came on a 45-yard touchdown strike from Cooper Jones to his El Toro teammate and the South MVP, Austin Derrico, with 5:16 left to play.
Six local players took part in the 59th edition of the OC All-Star football game for the South: Corona del Mar running back J.T Murphy, Fountain Valley defensive back Nick Welch and running back Benn Vallier, Edison defensive back Brandon Moradian, Newport Harbor defensive lineman Spencer Blake and Ocean View tight end Adam Meyer.
These six players all contributed throughout the evening, although it was the heroics of Vallier that stood out amid a whirlwind fourth quarter. Following the first of two touchdowns from Jones to Derrico, a bungled kickoff return provided further life for the South. As Fullerton’s Dylan Nicholson attempted to recover from a mishandled kickoff, he worked his way back into the end zone.
A swarm of South players, led by Vallier, brought down the receiver for a safety. The play cut the deficit to one point, and a few minutes later, the South would take the lead for good.
“We saw him bobble the ball and keep going back, and we got him,” Vallier said. “It was awesome, a fun final game.”
It was a quick start for the South on Saturday. A 45-yard screen pass from Jones to El Toro’s Shane McLaughlin paved the way to a first quarter controlled by the South. Then momentum quickly began to shift.
The second quarter began with the North in the midst of an 80-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive that took 3:48 off the clock. Servite’s TJ McMahon entered the game at quarterback to start the drive and compiled a total of 72 yards, including a gutsy six-yard run that sent him airborne at the goal line. After the play was ruled just short of the end zone, McMahon handed off to Villa Park’s Zechariah Holifield for a one-yard touchdown run to put the North on top 10-7.
Both offenses had scoring opportunities throughout the remainder of the half, but neither side would capitalize.
The South took over at its 44 early in the third quarter on an acrobatic interception from El Toro’s Noah Aguilar, and Santa Margarita quarterback Josiah Norwood delivered a momentary spark under center. With runs of three and 20 yards, followed by a 16-yard gain through the air, the mobile signal-caller had the South in striking range.
The promising drive ended abruptly two plays later, though, as an attempted pass to Murphy on a wheel route was intercepted by La Habra defensive back Isaiah Alcocer. This pick would mark the first of two second-quarter red zone interceptions by Norwood.
The North had its own chances to extend the lead, most notably a 73-yard drive that ended with a turnover on downs at the opponent’s 20-yard line.
A different scene would unfold right out of the gates in the third quarter, as the North opened the half with a six-play, 80-yard drive. The march featured a pair of over-the-shoulder connections between McMahon and Servite teammate Dominic Wingfield for 31 and 25 yards, respectively, the latter extending the North’s lead to 17-7.
While the South appeared to bounce back on the ensuing a drive, an interception from Fullerton’s Jonoven Smith at the six — his second of the game — ended that notion.
McMahon proceeded to tilt the momentum further in his team’s favor, leading the North with his arm and legs to a 94-yard touchdown drive. By the time he found Fullerton wide receiver Dylan Nicholson for a 13-yard score in the right corner of the end zone, only 52 seconds remained in the third quarter with the North riding a 24-7 lead.
Then things got interesting on a night that these seniors will not soon forget.
“It was a really cool moment,” said Moradian, whose South team scored 23 fourth-quarter points to pull off the comeback. “It felt kind of like the Patriots in the Super Bowl last year. Just a bunch of guys that used to be like enemies that played like family.”