SEBRING - Before stepping onto Firemen's Field for the last time, Jacquae Peart told his teammates that they were going to win.
"This is my field," he said. "So I had to tell these guys that we weren't losing on my field."
Peart, a four-year standout for the Blue Streaks, set the defensive tone for the South team in the 59th annual FACA All-Star Classic, as the South dominated the North for a 44-24 victory Saturday night.
"We came together and just had more chemistry," Peart said. "It was somewhat difficult to come together since we'd been playing each other as rivals over the years, but this win proves that we communicated better than anybody else."
The South team, represented by players from Tampa-Jefferson, Manatee, Tampa Bay Tech, Cardinal Newman, Boyton Beach, and Miami-Archbishop Carroll, among others, scored first, when East Lee County's Winfred Ward III intercepted a wayward pass from Lake Mary's Trenton Lowery and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
The North regrouped under the direction of a new quarterback, West Florida's Joey Baker, who directed a quick drive down field that ended in a touchdown pass to Union County's Buddy Edwards to tie the game. North kicker Ryan Feely added a 30-yard field goal to make it 10-7, giving his team their only lead of the game.
The three-point lead was short-lived, as Palm Harbor's Tyler Kaminiski capped a two-minute drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Tampa Bay Tech's Tajee Fulwood.
The South added to its lead with another score just four minutes later, when Kaminiski connected with Coral Shores tight end Anthony Rice for a 25-yard touchdown to bring the South's lead to 21-10.
Down 11 going into the half, Rickards Charlie Kelly put the North back on the scoreboard when he zipped a pass to fellow Rickards teammate Stephen Denmark to pull the North within four.
But the South's suffocating defense started to flex its muscle and halted the North's next three drives.
Peart was a major factor in those defensive stands, walloping North running backs Jonathan Vickers (North Florida) and D.J. Thomas (Baker) with bone-crushing hits. Meanwhile, Hardee's Keyon Brown terrorized the North's quarterbacks in the backfield, wreaking havoc with his vicious first-step. In the secondary, Frostproof's Jarviel Heart took care of the passing game, disrupting a handful of throws by stifling the receivers.
With the South's defense holding the North in check, Kaminski was free to open up the passing game, and he connected with Fulwood again for a long touchdown pass near the end of the third quarter to put the South up 28-17.
Following another three-and-out by the North, the South began to utilize a more methodical offense in order to chew up some time on the clock. Just shy of midfield, Sarasota Booker's Marlon Mack shed a handful of would-be tacklers and sprinted 56 yards for another score to give the South a commanding 35-17 lead with just less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
And just five minutes into the fourth quarter, the South added a field goal from Lakeland Christian's Grady Sharpe to go up by 21.
With time running out, the North put together its best drive of the game, as Kelly marched his squad downfield on a lengthy, five-minute -long drive. Once his team was in the red zone, Kelly scrambled out of the pocket and raced up the sidelines, diving into the end zone from nearly five yards out and stretching the ball to the pylon for his second score of the evening.
The North managed to regain possession of the ball when the South muffed the kickoff, but the South's defense responded appropriately, holding the North on four downs to take over in North territory with just under three minutes left in the game.
Bradenton Southeast running back Courtney Allen punched the ball in from two yards out only seconds later, giving his team a 44-24 lead. Fulwood took home MVP for the South team for his efforts, while Vickers was awarded the North MVP plaque.
As Sebring's only representative in the game, and thus the sole representative of Highlands County, Peart said he was overjoyed by the win.
"This is a victory for Sebring," he said. "I love my community. We're small, but we stick together. I'm always going to be behind them, and I'm proud to have been a part of it."
That community mentality is a major reason why Sebring has been a perennial contender in hosting the FACA All-Star Classic. Sebring has been home to the game since 2008, when it returned to Florida after a short hiatus away from the state.
"For a small town like Sebring to host this event and bring in some of the top athletes, it just really means a lot," said FACA All-Star Classic Chairman Austin Maddox. "We're really fortunate to be able to host all these kids and their families."
Maddox, who also is the vice president of the Sebring Firemen Inc., a longtime supporter of youth athletics in Highlands County, said that the impact the players have on Sebring makes coordinating the FACA All-Star Game that much easier.
"People need to understand that these kids have such a big impact on the community," Maddox said. "We take them around to the nursing homes, to hospitals, to schools - and a lot of these guys are rough and tough, but they get down to a real personal level with these people.
"It's really prestigious event and we're just more than happy to have it."