SEBRING - The 15th annual South-Central All-Star game sent Central Florida seniors out in style Saturday night, as the Central team edged the South squad with a 12-7 victory at Firemen's Field, capping the football careers of many prep stars from the Heartland.
"It was a great night," said Sebring Firemen, Inc. Vice President Austin Maddox. "It was another well-played game. Both teams fought hard. And after last year's monsoon soaked the field, we were just happy to see a dry field."
The Firemen are the primary sponsor of the all-star game, and also helped coordinate the influx of nearly 100 athletes into Sebring this week.
Putting so many different players on one team had an obvious effect on the game, as there was some trepidation from both squads in the early minutes.
The two teams only had three days of practice before the game, and many of the players were rivals during the regular season. Suddenly being thrust together as teammates made finding chemistry somewhat difficult.
"That's the strange part at first," said Central team linebacker Jacquae Peart. "It's a lot different, but you start to become friends with them, and you learn to come together and play."
Peart, a standout for Sebring during the regular season, set the defensive tone for the Central team, walloping the return man on the opening kickoff. From there, he quarterbacked a stingy defense that shutout the South squad for three and half quarters.
The Central team, composed of players from Sebring, Lake Placid, Winter Haven, Bartow, Okeechobee, Fort Meade and Lakeland Christian, got on the board first, scoring on a 7-yard touchdown run from Lake Placid's Eldon McKenzie to go up 6-0.
Taking its slight lead into the fourth quarter, the Central team struck again, this time on a trick play. Lake Placid quarterback Robert Walton handed the ball off to Winter Haven's Darian Mills, who faked as if he was going to run up field, but instead pulled up at the line of scrimmage, tossing a perfect spiral to a wide open Lake Christian receiver, Rafeal Pressley. He promptly scampered 37 yards into the end zone for the game's second touchdown. After a botched extra point, the Central squad had a commanding 12-0 lead.
In the fourth quarter, the South team (Charlotte, Moore Haven, Lemon Bay, North Port, Port Charlotte, Venice, LaBelle, DeSoto and Hardee) finally broke through, connecting on a long-pass play and converting the extra point to cut the deficit to 12-7 with just minutes remaining.
Following a stalled drive by the Central team, it was up to the defense to make one final stand.
With the South team threatening in the red zone, and the Central defense seemingly on its heels, Walton gathered up his teammates sitting idly on the sidelines, and urged them to cheer on the defense.
The boost in morale seemed to work. The South team was turned away at the doorstep as Central hung on to win.
"I know these guys after spending some time with them," Walton said. "And it was no different asking them to cheer than it was to ask my guys at Lake Placid."
"These guys were so talented. It was really fun."
Because the all-star game is the final hurrah for many high school football players, the Firemen does its best to make this last game a cherished memory.
Along with a DVD of their highlights from the game that can be sent to prospective colleges, each player gets a state championship-styled ring, and scholarships go to the top-performing athletes in academics.
Defensive and offensive MVPs from both teams are crowned as well.
Peart earned defensive MVP on the Central team for his spectacular efforts, which included nearly 10 individual tackles and one sack.
Okeechobee's Adrian Minondo was awarded offensive MVP. Minodo carried the rushing burden for the Central team, easily surpassing 100 yards.
"This means a lot," Peart said. "I got another opportunity to come out on the field, and I really wanted to come out here and play well."
Peart, who made the Florida Athletic Coaches Association (FACA) all-district team and was runner-up for player of the year, will have little down time in the offseason, as he gears up for playing college football.
He'll be back on the gridiron again, playing in the FACA All-Star game on Dec. 21.
"I love the game of football. It's nothing for me to go out and play."
Sebring's Gary Demarest took home the coveted Alan Jay scholarship award thanks to his 4.5 GPA. Other scholarships from Highlands Regional Medical Center, the Sebring Firemen, and Highlands Independent Bank were handed out to players from the South team.
To say this is the end of football for Peart and Walton would be wrong. Both expect to continue playing at the next level.
"Getting into college," Walton said. "That's my next goal."
Peart issued a similar sentiment.
"I go on my visit next week," he said. "I'm going to work out hard, play in this FACA game, and head out."
Walton is eyeing schools in the upper Northeast, while Peart is weighing all of his options.
Peart, along with some other Sebring standouts from the regular season, including LaDante Harris, will be in action in the FACA All-Star Game on Dec. 21. The game will be at Firemen's Field and kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.