BY BILL SORRELL
Trying to keep the mood light during practice for the 17th annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl High School All-Star game, Red team Head Coach Johnny Allen brought a radio.
Watching Allen dance, some coaches and players thought he needed medical attention.
“Coaches, even the players, like to make fun of my dancing. I’m not a very good dancer. I can’t dance but I don’t mind making a fool out of myself. They say I have a seizure out there. I don’t know much about their hip hop music that is playing but I just go with the beat and they start making fun of me,” said Allen.
The only dance in the end zone on Saturday could have been by Red wide receiver Dawson Williams. He caught a 51-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Spencer Smith with 2:13 left in the game to spark the Red to a 13-2 win at Memphis University School.
Williams, from Evangelical Christian School, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
The victory gave the Red team a 9-8 lead in the all-time series against the Blue.
Had it not been for Williams’ touchdown the MVP award may have gone to Red kicker Nick Anewalt. He had scored all the game’s points.
Anewalt kicked a 23-yard field goal in the first quarter. He purposely stepped out of the end zone when Red was facing fourth down on its 3-yard line with 4:54 left in the second quarter. The safety pulled the Blue within 3-2.
Williams’ incredible catch of a Smith pass got the Red to the Blue 24 before Anewalt kicked a 42-yard field goal with 10:26 left in the game for a 6-2 lead.
Williams’ touchdown catch was just as dramatic.
“The quarterback told me we were going to run this play. It was a straight go-route, a run and catch. I told Spencer to throw it as far as he could I was going to run out and get it,” said Williams. “It just happened to go in the end zone. It was a game to remember.”
Said Smith, St. George’s quarterback, “It was basically on him. I under threw it a little bit but he made a good play. It was actually supposed to go to the other receiver but I saw the safety scooting over so I decided to give Dawson a touch.”#
The touchdown led to jubilation on the Red sideline.
“The weather was horrendous today (a rainy 34 degrees). It was good old-school football weather, not really conducive for passing but we were finally able to connect on something deep with Spencer Smith throwing the ball to Dawson Williams, incredible talent. He was able to do a little slug-o, slink-o and caught the ball and scored and we finally were able to get the ball in the end zone,” said Allen, head coach at Harding Academy. “It looked nice.”
Williams said, “In the fourth quarter we stopping running it. That is when the offense started rolling.”
Blue running back Reid Holland said, “The long touchdown pass sealed it for the Red team. They made plays. They didn’t have a lot of them but they did what they had to do to get points on the board.”
Blue head coach Carl Coleman said, “Their offense was a little bit better and that is why they came out victorious.”
The game featured power defense by both teams, a career-long 70-yard punt by Noah Grant with 2:42 left in the second quarter, a 52-yard field goal attempt by the Blue’s Marshall Ware and an interception that led to the Blue team dance of its own.
“Eli Neal taking the ball after he intercepted it and spinning it around and dancing on it, that was great,” said Coleman, head coach at Manassas.
The game started with a fumble, interception and blocked punt.
There would be more turnovers.
“I think it was because of the rain and everyone was a little nervous,” said the Red’s Will Gusmus, a Houston linebacker.
Defense was the tone-setter.
“Our defense played incredible. Our defensive line controlled the tempo. They couldn’t block. We were all over the field led by Dennis Cheairs of Wooddale. He had two or three sacks. I don’t know how many tackles he made. He set the tone for us. I am not sure where he is going to college but anybody that picks him up they are going to be pleased with what they are getting,” said Allen. “Our secondary did an incredible job. When the ball was in the air, they were putting their hands on the ball or getting a pick. Our linebackers were strong and stopped their run game as well when they did the draw game.
“Carson Evans (a First Assembly Christian School defensive back who has committed to the University of Tennessee at Martin) came out and blocked a punt. It was real big for us and helped out with field position, and he turned around and made a pick for us on his first series. He might have made two if I am not mistaken. Every time our back was against the wall and they were about to score, our defense stepped up and made an incredible play.”
Anewalt said of Gusmus, “Give him credit. He made some plays. He was an absolute beast on defense. I thought it would be a tough game; interception, fumble, interception. We got up and got back to it.”
In the game’s first series, Blue defensive lineman Carlton Brown of Northpoint forced a fumble.
Defensive back Chandler Thomas of Kirby recovered it.
Coming up with crucial tackles, Gusmus said, “It was rough at the beginning. I couldn’t make any tackles but I started picking it up and made some good hits. Once we realized that we were better, we started picking it up and going with the groove. Our defense is what kept us in the game. We had control the whole time. None of us were worried.”
Holland, of Fayette Academy, said, “Their (Red) defense was great throughout the whole game. Blue couldn’t do anything with them.”
Red linebacker Dorian Hopkins of Memphis University School (who has committed to Tulsa) stopped the Blue on the Red 4-yard line when he recovered a fumble, the fourth turnover of the game. The Blue later got a sack on the Red 3, forcing the safety.
Later Chearis made a sack, forcing Grant to get off his record punt.
“Noah Grant is a great kid. I’m looking for big things from him. He is determined to have good punts all the time. He worked hard all week,” said Coleman.
Red defensive back Vincent Guy, a University of Tennessee at Martin commit from Whitehaven, got an interception in the third quarter. Red defensive lineman Lunden Clark (St. Benedict) got a sack in the fourth quarter. Red defensive lineman Meonta Kimbrough, who led Overton in tackles and runs the 4.0 in 4.8 seconds, made a jarring tackle in the third quarter, grabbing a runner by the chest and throwing him to the ground.
Holland, who has made a verbal commitment to play safety at Bethel University, said, “I think both defenses fed off how good they were playing.”
Blue middle linebackers, defensive ends and cornerbacks were among strengths.
“They were thumping,” said Coleman. “It was great defense for the Blue team.”
Neal, who will play at Marshall University, stood out, said Coleman.
“Of course everyone wants to win but we want to make sure we play good. Going into the last high school game everyone wants to make it a big one,” said Neal. “Coming into a situation where we have a week to bond with a whole team is kind of hard but it makes it easier when you have the best of the best like we had this week. We wanted to place an emphasis on defense because we thought the offense was going to score but it was the opposite. The defense came out thumping. We didn’t execute well on offense. The defense held their own. You use the bend-don’t-break method. The offense has got to help us out some.
“The turning point for the other team was when we punted and one of our players touched it and they got it,” continued. “That was when the momentum shifted.”
Said Blue wide receiver Monterio Wilburn of Mansassas, “Everybody got their head down.”
Wilburn, who is being recruited by Central Missouri and Lane College, said he expected Blue to score “a lot more. We have a talented offense.”
The Blue got heads up offensive play from Holland, who had 17 rushing touchdowns during the season, running back Noah Robertson (Munford) and quarterback Jaden Johnson (Kirby).
“He has a nice arm,” said Coleman, adding that the Blue offense “played great. The game was a pretty well-played game. We weren’t planning on turning the ball over the way we did. We didn’t get a lot of practice time. We were still trying to play good, sound football.”
Along with Williams and Smith, Allen said Red standouts were offensive linemen “who did a really good job grinding it out, Calvin Olson (Harding), Isaac Green (Central), Courtney Sharp (Whitehaven).”
For Anewalt, it was his second season to play football. This year he made 5 of 7 field goals, 49 of 55 extra points and was first team all-Region 7-6A kicker.
“To come this far in that short of time is really amazing. I had a great opportunity to step up and perform so I guess I did so. It was a good day,” said Anewalt, who wants to go to his dream school, Georgia Tech.
It was also a good day for Green.
At halftime, Green was named winner of the 2018 Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ Bull Bramlett Award. It exemplifies excellence on the field, high character, integrity and godliness off the field.
“Being out there with the best of the best from across the Shelby County area, you definitely had to step up your game the whole time you were on the field,” said Holland. “I was thinking, ‘Wow the best of the best are really out here.’ Most of the bonding came on game day. Being out there with the guys in the cold and wet, working together for one goal really brought us together. That goes for all my teammates, but especially the O-line. The whole experience was great. I just wish we were playing in Hawaii or Orlando, you know, somewhere hot!”
Gusmus called bonding with teammates “really fun. I couldn’t ask for a better group to play with.”
Smith said, “It was a great experience. You play with the best players in Memphis. I got to play with some of my best friends growing up. It was a fun time.”
Said Williams, “I’ve known Spencer since I was 12 years old. We’ve been best friends since. It was fun. It means a lot to all of these guys. It means a lot to me.”
With offers from Austin Peay and Navy, Grant said it was a well-matched game and he enjoyed meeting players from other schools. He did get a laugh during the week.
“A funny thing happened — one of my teammates called me out on my long hair and said I had to get my flow cut.”
It was an opportunity to showcase talent.
“Everybody going to college could show what they can do,” said Wilburn, who formed a bond with “the other talent. Everybody was top notch at their positions.”
Neal said, “To come out here with a bunch of guys that know what they are doing because everybody is the best of the best, it makes your job a little bit easier. I got to showcase my talents. Ends and tackles opened it up for me and allowed me to make plays.”
He called Marshall University a good fit.
“When you think of an inside linebacker, you think more of a meathead and for the most part is going to only cover the box. Marshall lets their linebackers do a lot because of athleticism. This is where I will be able to prosper.”
Coleman relished the opportunity to coach area players.
“Coaching different kids from different schools, different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, it was great. I loved it,” he said. “It surprised me how the kids came together and played.”
Although it was for one week, Allen said that he got to build relationships.
“It was an incredible group of young men. You hope you can build something for them to help platform their future.”