STOCKTON — Snubbed from the Central California Lions All-Star Football Classic 16 years ago, Willie Herrera will finally get his shot to partake in the annual event as head coach for the North team.
The East Union coach and 1999 St. Mary’s graduate is joined by 10 Manteca-area standouts this week as they prepare for Saturday’s event at Wayne Schneider Stadium in Tracy.
“It’s an absolute honor,” Herrera said. “I wanted to play in this bad. Just like becoming all-league and league champ, this is a goal you have as an individual.
“I remember being a freshman seeing those seniors getting to play in the game and I wanted to do that, too. It didn’t happen. I know how it goes now but I was a little bitter about it.”
He jumped at the opportunity to coach in the 44th rendition of one of the state’s oldest all-star football games. Herrera received an unexpected call from Schneider, Tracy High’s legendary former head coach who now coordinates the event. Schneider visited the North’s morning practice at Stagg High of Stockton on Tuesday to speak with the players.
“I never expected it,” Herrera said. “You never know when you’ll get a chance to do it again.”
The North is comprised of graduated athletes from San Joaquin County high schools and the Mother Lode. Los Banos head coach Dustin Caropreso leads the South, which features players from Stanislaus and Merced counties. The North leads the all-time series 24-17-2, but the South is 3-0-1 in the last four years.
Herrera is surrounded by plenty of familiar faces this week as they try to reverse the North’s fortunes. His coaching staff from East Union is along for the ride, as are graduated standouts in quarterback Jack Weaver, lineman Andy Parcells, lineman/linebacker Joseph Reynaga and receiver/cornerback Jake Harries.
“That’s the cherry on top,” Herrera said. “I love all my kids that come through but this class is special. Great, great kids. I wish I could have them for another four years, but to get that one extra game, I would not give that up.”
The College of Idaho-bound Weaver is embracing every moment. Players from the North are staying at in dorms at the University of the Pacific, which is a short walk away from the practice site. Practice is twice a day, and there are team-bonding activities such as Tuesday’s dinner hosted by the Linden Lions. They also attended the Stockton Ports game Wednesday.
“I leave (for C of I) in about three weeks, so it’s kind of a precursor for college life,” Weaver said.
And he’ll have college-caliber athletes to throw to. Cutrell Haywood, representing Stagg, won’t be far from Weaver over the next four years, as he’ll play for Idaho. Ripon multi-sport star Aaron Paschini is on his way to Humboldt State. Paschini was recently added to the roster as an injury replacement.
“That dude (Haywood) has mitts, he doesn’t drop a thing — Paschini, too,” Weaver said. “All the guys I’m throwing to out here are complete studs. It makes my job a lot easier.”
Ripon’s top defensive players are also on the squad. Paschini is joined by Trans-Valley League Outstanding Defensive Player Bryce Kinsey and Outstanding Defensive Back Luis Candido. Kinsey was one of the state’s most productive linebackers during his senior season, compiling 179 tackles. He aims to show that he can still bring it against large-school athletes.
“This is just an awesome experience. I’m so happy to be out here,” Kinsey said. “I feel like I have something to prove. I’m trying to get at least 20 tackles in this game. I know it’s crazy but I set my goals high.”
Kinsey will play for Modesto Junior College, and he’s getting to know some of his future teammates this week. Among them is former Manteca running back Kameron Beamon, who rushed for 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns in helping the Buffaloes garner a Valley Oak League co-championship, Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title and an appearance in the CIF State Division III-AA Northern California Regional Bowl Game.
“This means a lot,” Beamon said. “I didn’t think I was going to be picked, but I got the text and it felt good. I want to come out and show that I can do some work.”
Tremayne Willis Jr. of Lathrop and Weston Ranch’s Andrew Farley round out area all-stars. Both are workhorses on both sides of scrimmage at running back and linebacker.
“When we’re watching film throughout the year and game planning, those are guys we’re game planning against. Those are guys we had to stop,” Herrera said of the players who once rivaled his. “When we got this opportunity to coach those were guys we had in mind.
“The VOL has a lot of talent and there are other kids who could have stepped in and been just as good, but these guys were at the top. It’s nice to coach them instead of coaching against them. Their coaches did a really good job with them.”
Herrera and his staff are ramping up the tempo and physicality this week as the players get acquainted with their pistol wing offense and defense. It will get more challenging as temperatures rise into the 100s.
As much fun as the coaches and players are having, it’s back to business Saturday night.
Beamon’s goals are simple: “Ball out, score and win.”