The event offered 72 of the state’s top juniors across all classifications the chance to punctuate standout seasons with one final chance to showcase their talents. The North squad, helmed by Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo and featuring players from Regions 5-8, picked up two critical first downs on its final drive to help ice away a 20-17 victory over the South team, which was made up of players from Regions 1-4.
Allatoona running back Josh Bettistea finished with a game-high 113 of his team’s 281 rushing yards, a performance that earned him and North Oconee tailback Kawon Bryant co-MVP honors for the victorious North team.
“We knew kind of after the first practice, with our offensive line and our tailbacks, we were going to be able to run the ball,” Hidalgo said. “We could’ve lined up and handed it to them every time if we really wanted to.”
With both passing attacks limited by the unfamiliarity between quarterbacks and receivers participating from all over the state, the teams were forced to rely heavily on their ground games throughout the afternoon. Bettistea carried the ball 13 times for 77 yards on his team’s two second-half scoring drives and picked up 8 more yards late in the fourth quarter to move the chains and allow the North to run out the rest of the clock.
“It was amazing,” Bettistea said of his strong finish. “It was a great feeling. I had a lot of fun out here with these boys, and I really enjoyed myself.”
Marietta’s KirVonte Benson was named the MVP of the South squad, rushing for 56 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries as part of a lethal backfield tandem with McEachern’s Taj Griffin. The duo’s combined 117-yard effort was a joy to watch for McEachern coach Kyle Hockman, who helped direct the South offense throughout the week as an assistant to Berrien’s Ed Pilcher.
“That’s a dream right there,” Hockman said of his star-studded backfield Saturday. “Those two are special. KirVonte’s a heck of a kid and a good player, a real team guy. He’d do anything. We moved him around in different spots, and he’s just a real team guy. We really enjoyed working with him.”
A pair of McEachern standouts manned the left side of the South offensive line in Chuma Edoga and Chandler Jones, who teamed up all afternoon to clear holes, most notably on Benson’s 28-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
“That was fun that those guys got to stay together,” Hockman said. “They play on the right side for us, but it was a better matchup to put them on the left side together, and that was good to see Chuma and Chandler still working together.”
In spite of the gaudy numbers on the ground, the game was not completely devoid of fireworks in the passing game.
The North team found the end zone, first thanks to a 56-yard pass from West Forsyth’s Hampton McConnell to Tucker’s Nekyle Lundie late in the first quarter. McEachern wideout T.J. Rahming finished with two receptions for 20 yards and was targeted several times as the South tried to get its playmakers into open space.
A sluggish start for the South offense gave Marietta kicker Ian Shannon plenty of opportunities to showcase his powerful leg.
After coming up short on a 57-yard field goal attempt, Shannon converted from 42 yards out to give the South its first points of the game. Shannon also handled the punting duties, finishing the day with five punts for an average of 44 yards, including a booming 54-yarder that was called back due to an illegal procedure penalty.
Both coaching staffs were pleased with the quality of play in the exhibition, which came down to a potential game-tying drive that was cut short by Benson’s fumble in the backfield on what would have been a critical conversion for the South squad.
“It’s amazing, when you get really good players together, how fast they pick stuff up,” Hockman said. “We were able to put in quite a bit of stuff and have some fun with it.”