SAN ANTONIO - Running game...passing game...defensive line play? When the top high school football players in the country get together for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, it's hard to guess what will be the key.
West head coach Jim Streety went off the board all week - concentrating on special teams in practice and emphasizing it during his pregame speech. His instincts proved correct.
The West - buoyed by a blocked field goal return for a touchdown and a rare two-point conversion return on a blocked PAT - rolled to a 30-14 victory over the East in the 10th edition of the game before 34,126 in the Alamodome.
"The very first meeting we had with our players we talked about how hard it was to put together special teams in an all-star game," Streety said. "These guys are all-stars here not because of special teams. They are all-stars because of running, catching, throwing, tackling and those sorts of things.
"To put the special teams together is a little more of a challenge. We sold our guys on the importance of it and as it turned out we made some plays."
The biggest came early.
The West opened the scoring on a surprising 23-yard play-action pass to a surprising target, defensive lineman Ronald Powell, who was inserted into the game for a short-yardage fourth-and-1 play. The East appeared ready to get back in the game on its next possession when it lined up for a 32-yard field-goal attempt by Michael Palardy.
The attempt, however, was blocked by defensive tackle Cassius Marsh and scooped up by linebacker Josh Shirley, who returned in 77 yards for a 14-0 lead.
"I just shot off low and kept my balance and got to the ball," Marsh said.
He was just as quick to echo his coach's philosophy.
"It's an all-star game and everybody can play defense and everybody can play offense," he said, "but if you come together as a team and execute on special teams you have a better chance to win."
The play was the big moment in a lackluster first half in which the teams combined for just 151 yards on 43 plays.
The play stayed the same throughout much of the third. The West then engineered a five-play 63-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter that ended with a 5-yard run by Dillon Baxter, but was highlighted by a 39-yard completion to wide receiver Robert Woods from quarterback Jake Heaps.
The East offense, sluggish all game, got a surprise spark when Dartmouth quarterback commit Cole Marcoux led them on a five-play 67-yard scoring drive capped by a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ivan McCartney.
But before the East could feel it was back in the game - it was back out of it, thanks to a surprising special teams play on the extra-point try.
Oklahoma State defensive tackle commit Calvin Barnett shot up the middle to block the PAT attempt with the ball deflecting away to the right side. While a number of players were seemingly unsure if the ball was in play, Powell scooped it up on the 3 and rambled down the sideline to record a two-point conversion for the West, giving it a 23-6 lead.
Powell finished the game with five tackles, one sack and one forced fumble on defense, to go along with his touchdown reception and extra point return en route to being named the game's most outstanding player.
After that, it was just a matter of accounting for the final points.
The East scored once more on another strong drive by Marcoux, who threw a 16-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Gerald Christian. This time, the East went for two and pulled to 23-14 when Marcoux hit C.J. Fiedorowicz.
The West then finished the scoring on another unusual play as lineman Dominic Espinosa recovered a fumble by Dillon Baxter in the end zone for a touchdown. It was the final play of a long week.
"This week has been great," Streety said. "Just being with the guys that are the best players on all of their teams, and these coaches are all championship coaches in their communities. I always like to meet new guys like this and interact with them. It's been a wonderful experience."