North edges South in inaugural Elite Junior Classic

Rob Saye

North coach Rocky Hidalgo got excited Thursday at his team’s initial practice. When he saw running backs Josh Bettistea and Kawon Bryant perform against his talented defense, Hidalgo pretty much figured out his squad’s offensive gameplan.

“Once I saw them at practice, I knew we were going to be able to run the football,” said the Walton head coach, after his team eked out a 20-17 victory over a star-studded South squad.

Bettistea churned out 113 yards on 22 carries while Bryant had 112, including the game-winning 3-yard score with less than six minutes remaining. The two backs are not used to sharing the load, but they made it work in the inaugural Elite Junior Classic.

“It felt kind of weird because I’m usually getting like 30 carries a game, but I loved splitting with Josh,” said Bryant, who stars at North Oconee. “Hopefully, we can go to the same college and split them again.”

Early on, it looked like the North might run away with the game – but not by way of the ground attack. Hidalgo’s squad scored first on a 54-yard touchdown pass by Hampton McConnell to Tucker’s Nekyle Lundie late in the first period. McConnell, however, would complete just one more pass during the rest of the game.

Marietta’s Ian Shannon, who may have the best leg of any kicker in the state, drilled a 42-yard field goal to get the South on the board in the second quarter.

The North team, however, was not to be outdone, driving into South territory just before the half. St. Pius X kicker Michael Matthews, who has a huge leg in his own right, came on and kicked a 39-yard field goal to put the North back up by a touchdown with 50 seconds remaining.

The South roared back in impressive fashion before the buzzer. Camden County’s Antonio Wimbush returned the ensuing kickoff to the North 41-yard line. From there, Coffee quarterback Tyree Paulk made it happen. He found Benedictine wide receiver Brad Stewart, who out-leapt a North defender for a 41-yard touchdown with seconds remaining. Suddenly, the South had drawn even.

Despite the late burst by Pilcher’s squad, the North dominated the halftime stats. Hidalgo’s squad had 254 yards to the South’s 111.

The second half was dominated by the running game. Rain came down increasingly throughout the fourth quarter after a dry first three periods. And each side took advantage of the slick turf.

Early in the third, Marietta’s KirVonte Benson followed up three straight Taj Griffin runs with a 28-yard score to give the South its first lead at 17-10.

Matthews nailed a field goal after an impressive North drive keyed by Daniel David and Bettistea runs to make the score 17-13.

Shannon attempted a field goal midway through the fourth, but North defensive lineman Andrew Butcher of Alpharetta blocked it.

That set the stage for Bryant’s game-winning score after the South jumped on a hard count by David on a third-and-one.

Butcher’s blocked field goal was a big play in the game. He also had three sacks.

“I thought both teams played well and I thought it was very competitive,” said South head coach Ed Pilcher. “Both teams played hard. At the end of the day, they made fewer mistakes than we did and that’s generally what it comes down to when two good teams get together. We made some plays, but we had a field goal blocked, and that was part of the difference.”

At the end of the day, both sides benefited from the game. Despite the competitive nature of it, the goal was to have fun in a competitive environment.

“It was fun to get out and coach when there’s no pressure and just have fun and know that this is just for sheer enjoyment,” said Hidalgo. “I had a great time. It allows us to do things we wouldn’t normally do, like go for it on fourth-and-22.”

David quietly rushed for 53 yards between handing off to Bettistea and Bryant. The South was led on the ground by Griffin and Benson, who combined for 111 yards on the ground.



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