PINCKNEYVILLE -- When the Southern Illinois All-Star Football game was divided geographically by Interstate 57, for whatever reason the entertainment value started dropping every year.
That was the logical and briefly successful answer after dissolving the Southern Illinois vs. Western Kentucky format, but another change was necessary and the past few summers a drafting process for "Blue" and "Red" teams has proven effective.
In this year's version, Team Blue won an entertaining and well-played contest over Team Red, 38-28, Friday night at Pinckneyville High School.
"I know a few years ago when they just split it down the middle the game was kind of lopsided," said Team Blue head coach A.J. Hill, who guides Du Quoin in the fall. "So the last couple of years how we've divided it up has worked out better. They've been some pretty competitive games. Last year it was won on a field goal and this year it was pretty tight there until the end.
"So it's been fun and it always feels good to win. It's a different feeling than when it's with your team, but it's been good to get to know these guys."
Team Blue took an early lead when Anna-Jonesboro's Jayce Turner scored on a 2-yard run at the 7:22 mark of the first quarter. Team Red, which was led by Marion head coach Kerry Martin, tied it just 16 seconds later when Marion's David Fletcher connected with Carterville's Marcus Lazdinis for an 80-yard touchdown down the left sideline.
Team Blue got a 35-yard field goal from Johnston City's Luca Gualdoni and a 1-yard touchdown run by Turner to take a 17-7 lead into halftime.
Marion's Jaden Lacy and Carbondale's Jaden Bradley gave fans quite a show in the second half.
Lacy caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from Nashville's Cameron Parker at the 4:05 mark of the third quarter, only to see Bradley run back the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to give Team Blue a 24-14 lead.
Lacy then caught two more electrifying touchdown passes, first a 40-yarder over the middle from Fletcher and then a 60-yarder from Parker and suddenly Team Red was in front, 28-24, following Fletcher's fourth PAT kick of the night with 10:44 remaining.
Team Blue went back ahead on a 5-yard run by Harrisburg's Jordan Bartok, which was set up by a nice catch from Bradley. Then after forcing a punt, Team Red drove again and Benton's Blane Pankey cashed in from 3 yards to make it a 10-point game with 2:38 left on the clock.
Team Red then turned the ball over on downs at the 24-yard line and Team Blue ran the final two minutes off the clock.
"Our defense did a good job," Hill said. "(Team Red) had an explosive offense but we got a couple good stops. And offensively we were able to capitalize on some field position and punch a couple in. We answered their big plays with scores and put points on the board. That was the difference right there."
Bradley caught five passes for 122 yards in addition to his big kickoff return and was named Team Blue's offensive MVP (Bob Karnes Award). Lacy, who caught seven passes for 213 yards and three scores, was named Team Red's offensive MVP (Jim Lovin Award).
Anna-Jonesboro's Bryce Osman was 10 of 17 passing for 166 yards for Hill's Blue squad, while A-J's Turner was named the game's overall MVP (Mike Rude Award). Fletcher passed for 180 yards and two touchdowns and Parker racked up 153 yards and two scores for Team Red.
Defensive awards went to Herrin's Kyle Matuszczak for Team Red (Mike Deck Award) and Harrisburg's Bartok for Team Blue (Gary Glenzy Award). Sportsmanship awards named for Paul Houghton were given to Harrisburg's Rajah Peacock (Team Blue) and Eldorado's Braden Attebury (Team Red).
Hill wasn't surprised the game went so smoothly and was played at a high level.
"When you're working with a lot of kids who are all-stars, that means a lot of coachable kids or they wouldn't be here," Hill said. "And a lot of playmakers so it's pretty easy to coach those guys. The hardest part as an offensive coach is just trying to find ways to get all the playmakers the ball."
Also playing for Marion were running back Caden Hilliard and linemen Michael Cantrell, Brennan Pecord and Terrell Henderson.
Hill had several of his own Du Quoin players on the Blue squad, including Ashton Smith, Charley Mercier, Ryan Myers, Dakota Norris and Cullen Higgins.
"It makes me realize I'm going to miss them," Hill said. "They did a good job. I'm pretty close with that group so it was good to be able to coach them one last time."