If you’re a fan of big plays, the 41st edition of the Kensington Lions All-Star Football Game delivered – whether it was News Player of the Year Tyree Brown or the “Moose’s” nephew.
In a contest that featured three touchdowns of at least 70 yards among countless other big gainers, the North held on to defeat the South/the South rallied to beat the North 29-26 at Tonawanda High School’s Clinton H. Small Stadium on Wednesday night.
Darren Thompson’s second touchdown of the second half during his most valuable player performance proved to be the difference in a rather entertaining contest between the top graduated seniors from the area. The St. Joe’s star rushed for one touchdown and caught another to help the North win its third straight in the longtime series against representatives from high schools located in southern portion of Western New York.
Run Darren run: Thompson, the Prep Talk co-Track and Field Player of the Year and state Catholic champion in the 200-meter dash, flaunted his speed on the first offensive play of the second half. He took a handoff 78 yards for touchdown to build on the North’s 15-12 halftime lead. He then added an 11-yard touchdown catch off a throw from Donald Allender of Lewiston-Porter to give the North a 29-18 lead.
Brown delivers: It’s no secret Tyree Brown throws some of the prettiest down-field passes in the area. He flaunted that skill before the standing-room only crowd of an estimated 2,500.
In the first half, he and South Park teammate David Thomas hooked up on a 70-yard touchdown pass play to give the South a 12-7 lead. It was vintage Sparks on the play as Thomas made a fake and blew past a defender on a go route.
Brown helped the South pull within 22-18, rolling out to his right and launching a long pass to Orchard Park’s Chris Liberatore for a 72-yard strike late in the third quarter.
Brown, the offensive MVP for the South, finished 6 for 14 passing for 178 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 10 times for 111.
Different Moose on loose: Lewiston-Porter's Allender, the nephew of retired NFL fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston, showed he too can make plays with his legs and arm as the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder turned nine tough runs into 50 total yards, including an 8-yard touchdown in the second quarter that gave the North the lead for good. He then hooked up with Thompson on what proved to be the decisive touchdown with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.
See-saw first half: The defenses looked sharp early, then the teams took turns reaching the end zone.
Lyle Grant of Alden scored from the 1 late in the first quarter to give South a 6-0 lead. Canisius quarterback Tyler Stranahan turned a broken play into a touchdown with Sweet Home’s Joe Armenia kicking the first of his three extra points to give the North a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter. Stranahan showed his elusiveness on that 12-yard scramble.
On the South’s next offensive play, Brown hooked up with Thomas on the 70-yard TD pass. On North’s next drive, Allender’s 8-yard run capped a possession that milked more than eight minutes off the clock. Allender completed drive extending third- and fourth-down passes
South pulled within 29-26 early in the fourth quarter on a 23-yard TD pass to St. Francis’ Brandon Metz from Lancaster’s Dan Speyer, who then connected with Jack Myers of West Seneca West on the two-point conversion.
Morgan Mariacher recovered a fumble for South shortly after that, but North’s defense forced a turnover on downs on that possession. South also turned it over on downs late in the fourth quarter after reaching North's 39 with roughly two minutes left.
Top players: Most valuable players for the game included North’s Sam Wray of Starpoint (lineman) and Grand Island’s Jeremiah Wilkes II (defense). Besides Brown, South MVPs included Orchard Park’s Ronnie Shul (defense) and Depew’s Jakob Grant (lineman).
Remembering Coach Zinni: The game was dedicated in memory of the late Gene Zinni.
Zinni, a coaching “lifer” who starred at Tonawanda High School and at University at Buffalo during his football playing days, was involved with the founding of this all-star game back in 1976 along with Lions game co-chair Milt Dickerson and the late Harry Chambers.
Zinni died at age 79 last February from injuries suffered in a January auto accident.
Zinni, who played for the University at Buffalo, coached for more than 50 years in the area. He had two stints as an assistant coach at Buffalo State, UB and also coached at Sweet Home and the indoor Buffalo Destroyers.
Getting all wet: Cheektowaga High School’s field is surprising lush considering the lack of rain in Western New York this summer. There’s a reason for that as the South team discovered – the refreshing way – during its first couple of practices. The field is equipped with a timed, automated sprinkler system.
There were a couple instances in which practices stopped because the sprinklers went off in the area where the team was working out. Coaches moved various station drills to different spots to avoid the computerized shower. Still, getting all wet wasn’t a bad thing considering the recent hot, muggy conditions.
“It’s been so hot they didn’t really mind it,” said West Seneca East coach and South assistant Jim Maurino.
Rewarding experience: While representing one’s high school in this game makes players beam with pride, the main purpose of the contest is raising money to benefit others. Proceeds from Wednesday’s contest will be donated to various charities, the biggest being Kids Escaping Drugs.
Upon further review: Brown isn’t the only All-Western New York first team football player who called a late audible regarding his college future.
Canisius graduate and senior receiver/linebacker Justin Jones also is placing a bet on his own athleticism. Instead of heading to Robert Morris on scholarship, he has opted to attend a junior college, ASA Brooklyn, in hopes of getting a better Division I offer.
ASA’s schedule includes Nassau Community College, Lackawanna (Pa.) and Erie Community College. Orchard Park graduate Ben Holmes recently attended Nassau, earning a scholarship to play quarterback at Stonybrook.
‘It’s a better opportunity for me to get to a bigger stage on the next level,” said Jones, who made 75 tackles and recorded three interceptions on defense and scored seven touchdowns on offense last season and was a key member of stingy defensive unit that led the Crusaders to a 12-0 mark and state Catholic title in 2014.
Don’t get hurt! While those who signed letters of intent to play at Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools (formerly Division I-A) do not play in the game, that doesn’t mean those with scholarships to play another sport must sit this one out.
Of course, they have to get the OK from their respective college coach to do so.
All-Western New York first team offensive lineman Sam Wray got the thumbs up and suited up for his last game. The Starpoint graduate and two-time state and federation discus champion is heading to University at Buffalo on a track scholarship.
He represented a North squad that came into the contest hoping to run the ball. Wray’s ability to open up holes in the running game was a big reason the Spartans averaged 300 rushing yards per game during a 7-2 campaign.
“It’s an honor playing in the game,” said Wray, whose father Bob played in the game back in the 1980s. “It’s cool meeting new people. It’s good playing one last time. Hopefully I don’t get hurt for track.”
Past greats: Current active NFL players who represented their respective high schools in this game include the Bills’ Corey Graham (Turner/Carroll), Tennessee Titans punter Brett Kern (Grand Island) and Green Bay running back James Starks (Niagara Falls).
Those trying to make the 53-man roster of an NFL team who have played in this game include former University at Buffalo and Williamsville South quarterback Joe Licata (Cincinnati Bengals) and Lockport and Toledo alumnus David Fluellen (Tennessee Titans practice squad).