UNION, NJ--North Jersey’s best got a taste of the next level of competition Monday, battling their counterparts from the southern part of the state at the Phil Simms North-South High School All-Star Football Classic.
In a rainy game drenched with turnovers, the North stood strongest on defense and refused to concede any points, making a first quarter touchdown stand to win, 7-0. It was the lowest score of the annual exhibition since 2009, when the South won by the same score.
Offensive Lineman for Cranford Kevin Doran got the opportunity to play center in the game, a position he's never played before. "I did fairly well," said Doran.
Playing against some of the best talent in the state, the Marist College bound Doran said, "The game was a lot of fun, it was awesome. It was a great honor to play with top kids in the state and see how I stack-up."
Having minimal experience playing with one another, quality of practice became a vital influence on the game’s outcome, according to Caldwell’s Justin-Brendan Jackson.
“This has been so much work, because I haven’t practiced as hard as I think I would have [in high school] just preparing for this game,” Jackson said. “Practices felt like I already played a game, but we still had to play this game.”
Quarterback Zach Keller of Seton Hall Prep also picked up some advice leading up to the game he would be hard pressed to find anywhere else considering the amount of professional experience that was present throughout the process.
“Having three NFL quarterbacks here teaching me as a quarterback and helping me out, that’s definitely given me a lot of pointers and different things to work on,” he said.
Keller, in charge of running the team’s offense, also had to oversee his teammates becoming a cohesive unit, and relished that experience as well.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Keller said. “With all the skill that all these kids have, it’s just crazy to see both these teams come together the way that they did. There was plenty of competition between the teams, and it was just great to compete in a game like this.”
Keller threw the game’s only touchdown, a 15-yard end zone toss to Pascack Valley’s Mike Pimpinella.
Keneek Tomlinson, a defensive lineman from East Orange, racked up four sacks and a blocked field goal. The two constants in the game were rainfall and the sight of Tomlinson disrupting the backfield.
“I had a lot of fun,” Tomlinson said. “But it’s a lot faster and it’s a longer game, so you get tired easier. But it was nothing, I had to suck it up and play ball.”
Tomlinson moved from Jamaica to the U.S. in 2013 and started playing football shortly after. He will play for Monmouth in the fall, after he makes a few corrections to his training based on Monday’sgame.
“I’m going to have to go over with my track coach, get some more conditioning done and stuff like that,” Tomlinson said. “Go in the weight room and get bigger, because I know at the next level, it’s a lot of competition.”
Keller, off to Princeton in September, also noticed the differences between the players in Monday’s exhibition and the ones he faced regularly in high school.
“There’s tons of talent around, there’s a lot of speed, a lot of big boys coming after me,” he said. “Obviously it’s tough in these conditions as an offense, but it’s definitely a great learning experience for the next level.”
Former Giants quarterback and Monday’s all-star game namesake Phil Simms knew the rain impacted play, but looks forward to working with the athletes to refine their abilities, even in rough conditions.
“It’s tough, it could have been a lot of scoring too,” Simms said of the contest. “It could have got to the 30s tonight. But we’ll fix it.”
Rain or shine, the players still had a blast.
“There’s no words to really explain how I felt about it,” said Jackson, who didn’t expect to be selected because of his season-ending hand injury in the fall. “I would have no problem with you or someone coming up and saying, ‘Justin, would you be interested in doing this next year if you could?’ I’m like, ‘yes.’ There’s no if, ands or buts. It’s just ‘yes.’”