BLUEFIELD, WVa.- It was the chance for one more game. One more game in the 2016 season for the four Hanover Rhinos’ All-Star representatives, and one more game in the career of defensive captain Jeremy Renoll.
Before the 2016 AFA All-Star Game ended in a 6-6 tie, the Rhinos’ players left their mark on the contest.
Playing for an undermanned Northern Conference side deep in the heart of Southern Conference territory, the four had their work cut out for them.
Lineman Dustyn Lauver led the way with an inspired performance. He played nearly every play on both sides of the ball, and tied for 3rd on Team North with 3 tackles (2 solo), including a 1/2 sack.
However, the earliest impact by a Hanover player occured on the game’s first offensive play.
Alex Isennock made the start at quarterback for the North, a remarkable accomplishment considering he never played quarterback in his life until two months ago.
“It’s great to be recognized as one of the better offensive players in the league,” Isennock said. “I had no idea that my peers thought so highly of me.”
After being forced to throw the ball away while under immense pressure on first down, Isennock and the Rhinos faced 3rd-and-13.
Immediately under pressure again, Isennock stepped to the left and flipped a pass to KC Redman for two yards.
The Northern All-Stars turned the ball over on downs after Isennock threw an incompletion deep over the middle on the next play.
After the North’s second offensive series, Isennock was moved to wide receiver.
Lauver helped end the South’s second possession when he fought off a block, and assisted Victor Hall in stopping quarterback Phonta Williams on a scramble up the middle, on 3rd-and-9.
The North turned to the running game early in the second quarter, and they chose to run behind Lauver.
The Bermudian Springs graduate was the lead blocker on an 8-yard run to the right by Brandon McCain, and two plays later, he plowed an opening for a 9-yard run by quarterback Josh Leininger, also a run to the right.
A Franklin County Tigers’ connection followed four plays later to put the game’s first points on the board. Leininger dropped back and heaved a deep pass down the left sideline to his wide-open Tigers’ teammate KC Redman, for a 28 yard touchdown.
A double reverse run by Richard Foreman, Jr. was stuffed in the backfield to negate the two-point conversion try, and kept the score at 6-0.
A couple of minutes later, the South tied the score when Williams looked over the middle for Devin Dean on 3rd-and-goal from the 23. Dean reached up and neatly snagged the ball at the goal line to make it 6-6.
Team North recovered it’s own onside kick to start the second half, but Leininger was sacked and fumbled, and Elijah Alford returned the ball to Team North’s 17 yard line.
The Rhinos pawed the dirt and led the defensive charge, as the North came up with a huge defensive stand.
Williams left the pocket on first down, and scrambled up the middle, but Renoll got low and slipped under his blocker.
Without a perfect, squared up shot at the shifty quarterback, Renoll contorted his body like a pretzel, and twisted himself around the ball-carrier, stopping him short of the first down marker.
On third down, Lauver collapsed the middle of the offensive line, and tumbled into the legs of running back Marcus Alexander, stopping the play for no gain.
“When (the South) got the ball,” Renoll said, “It’s a tie-game, and low-scoring, so, in the back of your mind, your thinking, ‘if we let these guys score, it could be the game. Our backs were to the wall, and we had to do everything we can to stop them, and that’s what we did. The line made holes, and we were able to hold them.”
On the first possession of the fourth quarter, the South marched the ball deep into Northern territory. Faced with fourth-and-inches from the North 33, quarterback Dominique Fitzgerald scrambled right, broke a couple of tackles, and found himself in the open field down the visitors’ sideline.
As he bolted for the end zone, Jack Isennock approached from his safety position and navigated Fitzgerald out of bounds to save a touchdown.
The defense stiffened and forced a field goal try by Alan Gutierrez, but Lauver burst through the line on the left side, and Gutierrez scuffed the 33-yard 3-point attempt wide.
Leininger played like a mad-man on the ensuing drive, as the North raced against time to try and put the winning score on the board.
On fourth-and-7 from his own 25, he bootlegged left and saw Jay Collins open deep down the field.
Instead of risking an off-balance throw down the field, he raced for the first down marker, and dove for the conversion while getting knocked out of bounds by Omar Grimes.
Facing a 3rd-and-11 with under two minutes left, Leininger scrambled left again, and lowered his shoulder, knocking down Demonte Elliott on his way out of bounds for 7 yards.
The North turned the ball over with 3 seconds left in regulation.
Then began the craziness.
Franklin County’s Doug Kilpatrick sacked Williams on the last play of regulation, and as he was going down, Williams threw the ball up in the air, and slightly backwards.
Conan Hankla of Team North picked the ball up and rumbled down the visitors’ sideline, picking up 29 yards before Tyler Deane tackled him and sent the game to overtime.
Overtime was played by college rules to conserve time so AFA Bowl VI, which was up next on the same field, could start on time.
The South took the ball first, starting at the North’s 25.
On 2nd-and 17 from the 32, Fitzgerald dropped back to pass. He found no one open, so he tucked the ball, and began to run.
R.J. Buford closed in from the left end, and forced the quarterback to the middle. Lauver, finally seeing single coverage, did a complete-360 spin, befuddling his blocker, and leaving him grasping for air.
Lauver then secured the quarterback, and with help from Buford, they brought him down for a sack.
“It’s the first time I tried the spin move since middle school, and it worked,” Lauver said. “It was 1-vs.-1, and I saw the quarterback couldn’t find anyone. Right when I saw his first step (forward) that’s when I did the spin move. I pursued him, and met him halfway.”
Lauver, on the spin move: “It was weird, but it felt so right at the same time.”
On the next play, Antonio Shelton intercepted Fitzgerald, and returned it 81 yards before Fitzgerald and Dean made the touchdown-saving tackle at their own 10.
The North took the ball at the South’s 25, but their possession ended when Leininger’s desperation side-arm chuck on 3rd-and-11 was intercepted by Shawn Webb. Webb took off down the visitors’ sideline, but Leininger knocked him out of bounds at the North 46, following a 46 yard return, and the game was over.
Only 14 of the North’s scheduled selections made the trip from their various locations, which averaged about 5 hours away. Conan Hankla from the Carroll County Cannons suited up as a replacement for one of his teammates, and the rest of the North’s roster was filled out with players from the Mountain Mayhem, who play in the Southern Conference. The game was played at scenic Mitchell Stadium, the home of the Mayhem.
Each team named one MVP following the game. The Mayhem’s Brandon McCain, who went to North Carolina State, was named the North’s MVP. He carried the ball 8 times for 8 yards, and caught 2 passes for 7 yards. He added two tackles.
The South’s MVP was Star City Rebels’ linebacker Nick Spradlin, who recorded 4 tackles in the contest.
The game was the last one in the career of Renoll, who retires at 29, after playing football at some level since he was 10.
“I felt honored that the team elected me to play,” Renoll said. “It was fun to play one more time with the other guys from (the Rhinos), and it was fun to be on the same side of the ball with all the good guys we played against all year. It’s been fun. I’m going to miss it.”
RHINO CHARGE GAME BALLS:
OFFENSE: Josh Leininger, QB, Franklin County Tigers
Leininger was supposed to coach the North side, but was pressed into action with the small number of players that showed up for the team. He played as though there was no tomorrow, throwing for 112 yards and a touchdown, and running for 50 more yards on 10 carries. His running style resembled that of a bull in a china shop, as he ran over- and through- everything in his way. He carried several tacklers with him on a 16-yard gain in the first half, after it looked like he was stopped for a short gain. Even when he threw an interception on the game’s final play, he hustled and made the game-saving tackle.
DEFENSE: Dustyn Lauver, DT, Hanover Rhinos
Any number of defensive players could have earned this honor, but we’ll go with Lauver for his continuing impact in the trenches on nearly every play of the game. He grabbed 2 solo tackles and an assist, and a half sack, as well as disrupting a late field goal try by the opposition, and he did this all while playing nearly every play on both offense and defense. He commanded double-teams from the South on nearly every snap, and when they gave him single coverage, he made them pay. Lauver also recorded a quarterback hurry in the game. He played a strong game throughout, and proved he belongs with the AFA’s best.