Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
With 9:46 left in the game and his team trailing 14-7, North Olmsted quarterback Brad Novak found himself in familiar territory.
During the regular season, Novak and his Eagles had been involved in a number of close games that came down to the final minutes. On a cool Friday night in Berea, Novak drove the West All-Stars all the way down to the East 23-yard line as the Finnie Stadium clock ticked down to under five minutes remaining.
As he had in the first quarter, he looked for Cuyahoga Heights' Jack Alpert in the end zone. Novak's pass nearly found its mark, but Beachwood's Julio Stevens closed in to knock it away at the last minute and preserve the East's 14-7 win in the 42nd annual East-West All-Star Game before 2,571 fans.
It was the final high school football game for the two groups of seniors, many of whom will be playing at the collegiate level this fall. With the West nursing a 7-0 lead through three quarters, the opportunity for some final big plays loomed large.
As it was, three big plays in the final quarter determined the contest.
The first one came at the 9:57 mark when East quarterback Stephen Shorts of Brush found Stevens on a 43-yard pass play. The conversion pass was dropped, but the East was back in the game at 7-6.
Just seconds later, Craig Sloan of Garfield Heights came up with what proved to be the game-winner. He jumped in front of a pass out in the flat from Cuyahoga Heights' Jordan Martin and returned it 22 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
Aaron Ivory of of Glenville hit Shaker Heights' O'Dell Spencer for the 2-point conversion, and just like that it was 14-7 East with 9:46 left in the game.
Undaunted, Novak re-entered the game as the West took over at its own 15-yard line. A 14-yard pass play to Lakewood's Aaron Morit and a tough 22-yarder between two defenders to Mike Hansinger of Olmsted Falls helped the West get down to the East 27.
North Royalton's Austin Smith was nailed for a 3-yard loss on the next play, but a facemask call kept the West in business and put the ball at the 25. Novak, who ran for 71 yards in the game, had the East's full attention on the next two plays. he was held to runs of two and one, giving the West a third down and six.
Novak's first pass fell incomplete. On fourth down, he found Alpert to his right in the back of the end zone. In the first quarter, the two had hooked up on a 9-yard scoring toss to give the West its early lead. But this time around, Stevens' big defensive play ended the West drive and preserved the win for the East.
"You've got to give them props for stiffening their necks down in the red zone," said Novak, who was named the West squad's MVP. "Jack was open, but the guy came in and made a great play."
The West touchdown in the first quarter also came on a fourth down play. Novak had missed Alpert on third down, but connected the second time to give his team the lead.
"The first one was a boot," Novak said. "Before the second one, me and Jack talked before the play. He kept finding the seam out there, so I told him to hit it and I'd find him.
"He got open like he does, because he's a great receiver. It was a play we went to a couple of times and worked on all week, and I hit him in the back of the end zone," he said.
Novak said the team's chemistry was good considering the short amount of practice time they had.
"We practiced for two weeks, and you could already tell we were putting it together," Novak said. "When you've got guys going out there with this kind of athletic ability, guys are going to mesh.
"After one week, we were starting to get our timing and footwork down. We still had some route mixups, but that's going to happen. I mean, we practice all season for routes and we still mess them up then. But overall, we started to come together and it worked out well," he added.
For the game, Hansinger led the West with four receptions for 46 yards. Smith had five carries for 15 yards, while Lakewood's Maleke Norton had five tackles and two assist. He also had a 47-yard fumble recovery late in the first quarter that gave the West the ball at the East 35.
Brecksville's Colton Czack also had a fumble recovery late in the third quarter that gave his teem the ball at the East 42. Sloan, who led all rushers with 76 yards, was named the East's MVP.
Novak, who along with teammate Beau Bilinsky will continue his playing career at Mercyhurst, took a moment to reflect on his All-Star experience and his final game as a high school player.
"It was so much fun. It was a great time," said Novak as players from both teams fielded questions from the media while greeting friends and relatives on the field. "Any time you get to come out here with a bunch of great players like this, it's a great time.
"That's what I tried to do, come out here and do what I do best," Novak said. "I tried to run around and play as hard as I could, and so did the other guys around me. That was a good feeling, to have 11 guys out there who were playing as hard as they could. It meant a lot."
Novak also said it meant a lot to play one more time under the lights on a Friday night.
"When you finish that last game of the season, you feel like you're never going to get that feeling again. It's that feeling of playing under the lights in front of your family. Tonight, I got to come out here again, and it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"I was nervous all week, and I barely slept last night. It was fun," he added.
(You can follow us on Twitter @BeAFanatic, and you can find Jim Horvath @HorvathMedia. And yes, we're always there for you on Facebook: BeAFanatic.com.)
Click on the cameras below for photos and video highlights of this game: