Recent Ceres Unified School District graduates Caden Johnson, Nick Van Tuinen and Marcus Rodriguez had a blast while playing prep football for the final time.
Johnson (Ceres High), Van Tuinen (Central Valley) and Rodriguez (Central Valley) competed in the 28th North/South Rotary All-Star Football Classic on June 28 at Golden Valley High School.
Caden, Nick and Marcus suited up for the North squad, which suffered a 35-28 loss in overtime. The trio teamed up with players from Atwater, Buhach Colony, Central Catholic, Denair, Escalon, Golden Valley, Gustine, Hilmar, LeGrand, Livingston, Los Banos, Mariposa, Merced, Modesto Christian, Oakdale, Orestimba, Pacheco, Patterson, Pitman, Ripon, Ripon Christian, Riverbank, Turlock, Turlock Christian and Waterford.
The South team's roster features players from Caruthers, Central, Chowchilla, Coalinga, Dos Palos, Firebaugh, Fowler, Fresno, Hoover, Immanuel, Kerman, Kingsburg, Liberty, Madera, Madera South, Mendota, Parlier, Reedley, Roosevelt, Sanger, Selma, Sierra, SJ Memorial, Sunnyside, Tranquility, Washington and Yosemite.
The North squandered a 28-14 lead.
"It was a great experience," Johnson said. "I had a lot of fun."
Added Van Tuinen: "I'm not hurt by the loss. We gave them a run for their money."
Johnson contributed at receiver.
Caden's cheering section consisted of his parents, brother, grandparents, aunt, two cousins and a pair of family friends.
"Playing basketball and track helped me stay in shape," said Johnson, who last played organized football during Ceres High's 40-13 loss to crosstown-rival Central Valley in November. "I've also been working out with my dad and running."
Caden was on the field for eight offensive plays.
He had two balls thrown his way. Both passes were low.
"Of course, I would have liked to play more just like everybody else," Johnson said. "But you can't always have your way. It was a huge honor just to be chosen for the team."
Van Tuinen played half of the game at outside linebacker.
"We didn't keep stats," Nick said. "But I felt like I did pretty good. The players I got to play with were inspirational. We had really good talent. We got tired during the end. We weren't able to make the plays we were making during the beginning of the game. I enjoyed the experience. It was a lot of fun."
Rodriguez logged playing time at defensive end during parts of the first, third and fourth quarters.
"It was a cool experience," Marcus said. "I met a lot of new people. We had fun together on the field."
Kickoff for the all-star contest was 7:45 p.m.
The North and South battled under the lights at Veterans Stadium in Merced.
"I was a little nervous," Van Tuinen said. "We didn't know how the other team was going to play. It's a good feeling to represent my school. That's where my heart is; on the football field."
"I had the same feeling like when I played for Ceres High," Caden said. "A little bit of butterflies. It went away once I got on the field. I wanted to make some plays. It was fun. This was the last step before moving on to the next level. I leave on July 5 to Oregon for summer ball."
Johnson (Southern Oregon University) and Rodriguez (Modesto JC) will continue their football careers at the college level.
Van Tuinen will give up the sport he loves to focus on his future profession. He wants to become a fireman.
"When the final seconds ticked off the clock, I was sad," Nick said. "I'm glad I got to play in the game. Now, it's all over for me. I'm going to miss it. It will hit me in the fall when I don't put on pads."
More than 1,200 players were nominated for participation in the North/South Rotary All-Star Football Classic.
Johnson, Van Tuinen and Rodriguez earned invitations based on their stellar play on the gridiron during the regular season.
Nick was a two-year starter on Central Valley's varsity football team.
Van Tuinen had 70 tackles, five sacks, five quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery during his final season with the Hawks, who compiled a 5-5 overall record, finished 2-4 in the Western Athletic Conference and fell one win shy of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time.
Van Tuinen earned second-team, all-conference honors.
Rodriguez started at the varsity level for three years.
He was named to the WAC Second Team this past season.
Marcus registered 64 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Johnson played football at the varsity level for two seasons.
Caden was voted to the WAC First Team his senior year.
He caught 67 passes for 876 yards and seven touchdowns as Ceres High posted a 2-8 overall record and had an 0-6 mark in WAC play.
"I'm definitely happy with my career at Central Valley," Van Tuinen said. "I enjoyed playing for both coaches (Jason McCloskey and Tim Garcia). They're good guys. They were influential to me and helped me along the way. I'm going to miss my teammates. You see the guys every day. After football season, it stops."