TRACY — Kendel Johnson spent a large portion of his Central Valley High School career handing off to Ja’Quan Gardner.
It wasn’t a bad option, considering Gardner is the leading rusher in the history of the Stanislaus District.
But on Saturday night, Johnson put on an offensive show that was the equal of anybody on either side of the ball in the 41st annual Lions Club All-Star Football Game.
And although the game ended in a 21-21 tie, it was Johnson, who shared quarterback duties for the South, walking off with the Most Valuable Player honor.
“He was still behind me tonight, and we always will have that connection,” Johnson said. “It’s always fun having him back there because he’s an outstanding back. Just to be a quarterback for him is crazy fun.
“It was fun for me tonight. Ja’Quan got his touches, and I got to show that I could do a lot of stuff, too. But Ja’Quan is still my role model.”
This was the second tie in the game’s history, but the South had two chances to win in the final 20 seconds. With 22 seconds left, Turlock’s Sean Downs appeared to have hit Merced’s Trevante Richard with what would have been a 4-yard touchdown pass.
Richard was on his back in the end zone when he caught the ball, which popped out of his grasp when he was hit by a North defender. Richard claimed he grabbed the ball again and it never hit the ground, but the pass was ruled incomplete.
The South still had one more chance to win, and it again came down to Richard, whose 24-yard scoring reception from Johnson forged the 21-21 tie with 7:01 remaining.
This time, it was Richard lining up a 23-yard field goal on the final play. Despite never having kicked in a game before, he’d hit three extra points. In the Lions game, however, rushing on conversion kicks isn’t allowed, but rushing on field-goal attempts is within the rules. And while Richard, unrushed, connected on three extra-point opportunities, this field-goal attempt never gained much height and was blocked at the line of scrimmage.
The South outgained the North 408-337, including a 217-115 advantage in the second half. Johnson was the leading rusher with 79 yards on 10 carries.
The North, which had won eight of the last 10 matchups and leads the all-time series 24-15-2, scored twice in opening three minutes.
Gaige Allen of Kimball, who was named the outstanding offensive player, grabbed a 49-yard scoring pass from Kelse DePauli-Wiltse to open the game, then scampered in from 22 yards on a reception from Wayne Brooks for a 14-0 lead.
But the South answered quickly with Johnson hitting Tristan Best (Downey) with a 5-yard scoring pass, followed by a 47-yard pass from Downs to former Modesto Christian quarterback Anthony Brooks with 20 seconds left in the first quarter.
The 14-14 tie held until the fourth quarter, when Manteca’s Alex Laurel capped a 92-yard North scoring drive with a 2-yard run. The South answered two possessions later with Johnson completing three passes for 50 yards, including the tying strike to Richard from 24 yards.
But after Richard’s chance to give the South a last-play game-winning field goal for the second straight year went awry, the players milled around, not quite sure what to do.
And as they shook hands at midfield, both sides began to chant: “O-ver-time, O-ver-time.”
“Heck yeah, we still want to play,” Johnson said. “We want to show who is the best team out here – South or North.”