charleston — On a day of little offense, the North had one big play that stood up.
Rhett Heston caught a short pass from Connor Neal and turned it into a 73-yard touchdown Saturday as the North hung on for an 8-6 victory in the 66th North-South All-Star Football Classic at drizzly South Charleston High School.
It’s the fourth straight win for the North, matching its longest run from 1999-2002. The South remains ahead in the all-time series 40-23-3.
The hookup between Neal and Heston, who won a Class AA state championship together at Fairmont Senior in December, broke up a scoreless tie with 8:27 left in the third quarter and represented a large chunk of the 174 total yards the North managed the entire game.
The South finally got on the board with 1:02 left on a 7-yard toss from quarterback Will Hackney (Sissonville) to team MVP J.T. Hensley (Sherman), but the 2-point conversion pass from Hackney to Christian Pack (Summers County) was broken up at the goal line by the North’s Caleb Bish (Grafton).
“We definitely expected to score more,’’ said North coach AJ Harman (Liberty Harrison), “but it felt like a scrimmage in a way. We came out with a lot of mistakes that are kind of similar to what happens in a first scrimmage. But this is the kind of ball I like — this is physical.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the South team and their coaches for how prepared they were for us, the way they lined up defensively. They really came out and competed, and it was a lot of fun.’’
The game was in stark contrast to the record-breaking offensive glut of the North-South basketball game one night before, which the North won 171-141. Saturday’s football game produced just 12 first downs between the two teams and barely hit 300 total yards. At halftime, it was 0-0 and the teams had combined to gain 68 yards.
The South managed but one first down in the first 2 1/2 quarters, by which time it had two of its three turnovers and 27 net yards. In fact, the South had to consistently repel North drives just to keep the game at a one-score differential.
Five times the North got inside the South 40-yard line and didn’t score — with two of those stops coming on downs at the South 2 and 1. On the first, Caleb Richmond (Meadow Bridge) and Avante Burnett (Woodrow Wilson) tackled Heston for a loss of a yard and on the second, quarterback Tre Beard (Musselman) was stopped inches shy of the goal on a scramble from the 5.
Hensley figured into a lot of the big plays for the South both as a defensive back and wide receiver. He intercepted two passes at his own 11 and 19 and returned a punt 15 yards. On offense, he caught six passes for 59 yards, including his team’s lone TD late in the game.
“Coach put us in our positions, in our strength spots,’’ Hensley said. “We just came out here and tried our best. We had a few turnovers that cost us early in the game, but we fought ‘til the end and we go home losers, but we still fought hard and that’s all that matters. I just wanted to contribute to this team any way I can — that’s fine with me.’’
Heston was selected as the North’s MVP, largely for his catch and run for a score in the third quarter. He also contributed a quarterback sack for minus-7 yards.
The North touchdown had a definite Fairmont Senior flavor, not only for the quarterback and receiver involved, but the play was called by assistant coach Mark Sampson, the Polar Bears’ offensive coordinator who was on Harman’s staff this week.
“Coach Sampson and those guys are the best at what they do,’’ Harman said.
The play came on a second-and-9 from the North 27, with Neal floating a short toss in the flat to Heston, a running back who quickly found a lot of room and sped down the left sideline.
“We’ve ran that play a lot this year at my school,’’ Heston said. “We came down here expecting to find something open and just came out at the half and Connor called it. It’s been open all game, but Connor’s really not looked to me that much. That time, he looked to me and it was just off to the races after that. We finally found that 9-2 connection that we’ve been running [referring to their jersey numbers].
“I was surprised. Their defense was great — hard-nosed kids. They were great players and much respect for all the South players. Just finally being that wide open was a great time and just a great play call by Coach Sampson.’’
The ensuing 2-point conversion proved vital for the North as Neal found D’Andre Hollaway (Bridgeport) with a pass for an 8-0 lead that stood up the rest of the way.
The game’s top rusher was the South’s Owen Chafin (Spring Valley) with eight carries for 54 yards, including bursts of 17 and 32 yards. Neal was 6 of 19 passing for 103 yards with two interceptions. The South’s Hackney ended up 8 of 12 for 77 yards.
North linebacker Chris Rhinehart (Musselman) was his team’s top tackler with six total stops. For the South, it was Sammy Pullens (Fayetteville) with seven total tackles.