When the lights come on at Steinecker Stadium on Friday night, some of the area's top prep football players will find themselves lining up with some unlikely teammates.
One of the interesting aspects of the annual Northwest Ohio Regional All-Star Football game is the pairing up of former rivals. The event, which is in its 24th season, gives recently graduated players one final opportunity to represent their high schools. Kickoff at Perrysburg Junior High School is at 7 p.m.
Former Perrysburg defensive back Matt Mesker will find himself on the same sideline as players from arch-rival Maumee.
“There are some kids from Maumee on my team. So it's definitely weird playing with them,” Mesker said of former Panther wide receiver Zach Graven and lineman Kaleb Ash. “But it's fun. It will be cool playing in that stadium one last time with all these guys.”
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A total of 73 players, who are separated into Black and Gold teams, have been preparing all week to play in the event that attracts crowds of about 2,200 each summer.
Clay quarterback Josh Pennington, who will walk on to the University of Findlay, will play with three linemen from Three Rivers Athletic Conference foe Whitmer. Austin Shaffer, Jacob Lapoint, and Blake Bengela will suit up for Pennington's Black team. Pennington also will get to throw to former Clay teammate and wideout Anthony Ramirez.
“This is giving me a shot to play one last time in high school with a bunch of guys I've played against and a couple guys I've been playing with,” Pennington said. “So it's a good shot to get ready and to be playing with guys that also will be playing in college.”
For about 60 percent of the participants, it will be their last time playing football. That includes Mesker, an All-Blade player who had three interceptions and 110 tackles for the Yellow Jackets last fall.
“I think this may be it,” Mesker said. “I'm thinking about walking on at Cincinnati. But I'm not sure. This is cool. It's nice to play football again.”
Avion Boyd, an All-City League first team linebacker and running back from Start, will suit up for the Black team. Boyd will play for Dakota College at Bottineau, a junior college in North Dakota.
“This feels great. It's a big honor. These are the top stars in the area,” Boyd said. “This is getting me back into football mode. It's getting me ready, running and doing drills.”
Former longtime Rossford coach Tom Ferguson, who heads up the Black team, is coaching in the event for the 10th straight year.
“It's really neat,” Ferguson said. “When the lights come up, we get the butterflies just like the kids. We are still competitive. We don't come out here and practice to lose. We still have that desire.”
Ferguson heads up a staff of retired coaches, including Steve Wilwohl (Anthony Wayne), John Downey (Archbold), Steve Gwin (Springfield), John Miller (Toledo Christian), and David Hansbarger (Swanton).
“For the retired coaches, it rejuvenates us to work with the cream of the crop of northwest Ohio ball players,” Ferguson said.
The coaches of the Gold team are Brian Wical of Cardinal Stritch and Bowsher's Craig Lubinski.
Pennington, who threw for 1,889 yards and 18 touchdowns for the Eagles last fall, is among a group of four stellar quarterbacks on the Black. David Nees of St. Francis de Sales, Evan Wyse of Archbold, and D.J. Hagerman of Ayersville also will split time at QB.
“This is definitely exciting,” Pennington said. “This is good to get ready and to get amped for college football. We have a bunch of high-caliber players. It's an all-star game so these are the top notch players and we're ready to play some ball.”
Boyd called the event “cool and interesting.” He summed up his team's goal succinctly: “I expect us to win.”