The San Luis Obispo County senior all-star football team seemed to have the game won when its defense converged for a crucial fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter Saturday night.
Then controversy erupted, leaving fans booing and the near-capacity War Memorial Stadium crowd at Paso Robles buzzing after the Northern Santa Barbara County team escaped with a 24-20 victory to go to 4-0 in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes All-Star Classic.
Lompoc running back and game MVP A.J. Flores appeared to be stuffed for a 1-yard run on fourth-and-2, giving the San Luis Obispo team the ball with a 20-17 lead with 4:27 remaining. But officials conferred at midfield, and a flag came out for a 15-yard illegal defense penalty under all-star rules.
The Santa Barbara team benefited from a pass-interference call on the next play, and eventually cashed in on the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by St. Joseph quarterback Curry Parham.
Righetti defensive back and Santa Barbara County Defensive Player of the Game Malik Pope snared his second interception of the game on the ensuing drive, and the Santa Barbara team ran out the clock for the win.
The frenzied finish overshadowed a masterful game by Mission Prep running back Patrick Laird, The Tribune’s County Player of the Year.
Laird, who will be a preferred walk-on at Cal, rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries and made one of the game’s biggest hits from his safety position. He scored on runs of 89 and 45 yards on his way to SLO County Offensive Player of the Game honors, with his 89-yard TD run down the left sideline igniting a stagnant offense 4:52 before halftime.
San Luis Obispo County Defensive Player of the Game honors went to Atascadero linebacker Ryan Lombardi.
Parham, who completed 3 of 14 passes for 31 yards, was named Santa Barbara County Offensive Player of the Game. He hit wide-open Righetti receiver Kyle Strickler for a 28-yard TD pass over the middle for the game’s first points.
Arroyo Grande quarterback Mikey Gutierrez was 11-for-19 passing for 100 yards, including a 30-yard TD strike to San Luis Obispo’s Thomas Orradre to give SLO County a 14-7 lead with 7:03 left in the third quarter.
Overall MVP went to Flores, who rushed for 132 yards on 24 carries.
The game also paid tribute to its two honorary coaches, former Arroyo Grande High head coach Jon Huss and Santa Maria area coaching fixture Barney Eames. Both coaches are widely credited with implementing schemes that influenced other coaching staffs throughout the Central Coast, including Huss’ fly offense.
Guy Graham, a decorated longtime former high school and junior college official, was the game’s honorary official.